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Death comes calling for the 21st-century sinner Everyman

05 June 2015

Peter Graystone sees Carol Ann Duffy's update for the National Theatre


The party's over: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Everyman in a scene from Everyman

The party's over: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Everyman in a scene from Everyman

WHO is the most attention-grabbing figure on the London stage during the summer of 2015? God is. Well, God and Benedict Cumberbatch, tickets for whose Hamlet sold out in seven hours. But mainly God.

He is central to Steve Waters's Temple, at the Donmar, examining the impact of the 2011 Occupy London protest on the clergy of St Paul's Cathedral. He will trap the Mexican nun Juana Inés de la Cruz between organised religion and personal faith in a revival of Helen Edmundson's The Heresy of Love at the Globe. At the Gate, he will make the pastor of an American mega-church risk everything by preaching about a fundamental change to his theology in Lucas Hnath's The Christians.

But he has already given Rufus Norris his first hit as artistic director of the National Theatre in Everyman. It is Carol Ann Duffy's reinvention of the 15th-century morality play, usually regarded as both the founding play of English drama as we know it, and unperformable.

In the play's first surprise, he is a she. Kate Duchêne's compassionate performance has God as a cleaning lady, sweeping up after the party-to-end-all-parties for Everyman, a reckless, heartless, and soon-to-be lifeless City boy. Played with irresistible charisma by Chiwetel Ejiofor, he falls from a balcony during his drug-driven 40th birthday.

He is confronted by Death, a wryly funny Dermot Crowley, who has heard all the excuses before. Everyman discovers that neither wealth nor good deeds, and not even remorse for failing to care about the planet's future, can save him. Only God can.

Tal Rosner's video design wraps stunning images around the action. But old-fashioned theatricality provides the most memorable images: Everyman's slow-motion fall from the heights, a mobile scene-of-crime tent that progressively snatches away his senses, a money-scattering gale, and the dizzying choreography of the celebration by Javier de Frutos.

Occasionally Duffy's text works so hard to incorporate this year's vulgarity into its couplets that it strains. (You know the look of disdain a teenager gives you when you try to impress him by using urban slang? That!) But this is a minor criticism in comparison with the joy of seeing an ancient play reach across the centuries and seize the soul of a weary nation.

The closing moments of the play, when God divulges that, even though she knows human beings to be wretched, she cannot help loving them, are as tender and moving as anything currently on stage.

A National Theatre audience routinely greets a religious sentiment expressed by a Christian character with an audible groan. For Everyman they stood, cheered, and chattered about faith in the bar. In the face of death, a miracle.


Everyman continues in repertory at the Olivier Theatre, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1, until 30 August. It will be broadcast live to cinemas across the UK on 16 July. Box office: phone 020 7452 3000.


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