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,
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
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.