THIS VERY NIGHT SHALL THY SOUL BE REQUIRED OF THEE…
God is sweeping the big blank stage. We won’t know for a minute or two that Kate Duchene IS God, given she’s a weary grey-haired cleaner in a tabard. But in Carol Ann Duffy’s modern take on a medieval morality play, interpreted by Rufus Norris, that’s who God is: incarnate among us, char-ing for the orgiastic, coke-fuelled birthday bash of “Ev”: Chiwetel Ejiofor. Knowing all things (cleaners, like God, tend to) she predicts that she’ll be sweeping up condoms and worse by morning – “Don’t ask”.
At the party, crazedly choreographed by Javier de Frutos, we see that she’s right. Everyman is a high-living, bonus-fuelled party animal, surrounded by sycophantic friends bellowing “Happy fucking birthday!” (Duffy wins the palm as the sweariest poet-laureate yet). But, following tradition, Death comes for him. He falls off the balcony on his 40th, draped in police incident tape in a moment of staging which feels suspiciously designed to remind us of Norris’ London Road. Death, a drily funny Dermot Crowley, dons a white forensic suit and rubber gloves (no scythe in 2015) and warns Ev to render God an account of his life. So, as in the old plays, Everyman vainly seeks advocacy from his friends (“We’re well out of our comfort zone here, this is mental”), from the family he has neglected, including a gloriously grumpy Sharon D Clarke, and from the good deeds he never did.
Despite the stardom of Ejiofor and the always interesting Duffy as writer, it felt a risk for Norris to set out his stall as new Artistic Director with a 100-minute religious masque: given that the number of believers eager to take offence is now matched by equally offendable atheists. But with wit, panache, showmanship and the occasional earnestness of the verse offset with sly comic timing, he pulls off something both spectacular and serious. Hytner, remember, put Jerry Springer The Opera in his first season: more scatological, but with the same Judaeo-Christian theme of death and judgement. A nice symmetry.
And moments to remember. Ejiofor is its powerful core, swaggering, hungover, arrogant or terrified, learning humility before our eyes. Duchene, reappearing in his darkest hour as a fellow-tramp but still God, has a wisely underplayed strength. Tremendous projection expresses the global news and disasters which Ev has ignored; the ensemble in various guises moves kaleidoscopically and there is a wonderful mash-up score (William Lyons, with Paul Arditti’s sound) from disco to lament to the harsh choral beauty of The Lyke-Wake Dirge (“This ae nicht… fire and fleet and candle-licht, and Christ receive thy sawle!”).
That is sung by the ensemble startlingly disguised as 8ft-high walking rubbish tips; a huge wind-machine blows fake money and paper rubbish across the stalls as Ev laments in a plastic wasteland “I thought the world was mine to spend, a coin in space…”. Cue penance, apology, terror. But the final moments, when he learns to give thanks for the failing body and the world it shared, are strongest. Death’s rolling incident-tent (more police tape) sweeps aside his physical functions – personated by the ensemble, medieval style – leaving Ev alone. “I think I have a soul like this planet has a moon, my own soft light when there is only endless night. Let it go free of Time…In all humility, let it go free of me..”
Death is furious at this gentle resignation, and threatens the audience. “who’s next?” We laugh. Nervously. But not nervous for the new NT regime, not now. Offbeat but traditional, theatrical but heartfelt, it’s a triumphant night. There are £15 tickets, so get queueing.
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Sponsor, Travelex. In Cinemas 16 July via NT Live