Last seen portraying Patrice Lumumba in the Young Vic’s A Season in the Congo for which he received a nomination for the 2013 Evening Standard Best Actor Award, Ejiofor has been rather busy in moving pictures. But, the theatre is where he honed his craft and gained the critical recognition which won him such acclaimed movie roles as Okwe Lander (Dirty Pretty Things, 2002), The Operative (Serenity, 2005), Simon/Lola (Kinky Boots, 2005), Odenigbo (Half A Yellow Sun, 2013) and Solomon Northup (12 Years A Slave, 2013). He has a sterling track record of theatre roles that few other black actors can boast, having played coveted roles in Shakespeare (award-nominated Romeo, award-winning Othello, Malcolm – MacBeth); Noel Coward (Nicky – The Vortex), Chekov (Boris – The Seagull), Ibsen (young Peer – Peer Gynt), and as award-winning Chris in Blue/Orange.
So, it was no surprise that once the news broke that Ejiofor had won the title role of Everyman to be staged at the National, theatre-lovers by the thousands determined that they would not miss it. So it was that on Press Night, the 1160-seat capacity Olivier Theatre was sold out. Because here was Ejiofor in the title role of a late 15th Century morality play, re-worked for modern audiences by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and directed, as his debut, by the National’s new Artistic Director Rufus Norris! Irresistible!
Excited chatter filled the auditorium as press, industry, artists and theatre-lovers mingled. But respectful silence immediately fell, like a suddenly unplugged speaker, as soon as the lights went down. Everyman (originally The Summoning of Everyman) is a profound piece of theatre written by an unknown playwright about the nature of salvation, yet it has constantly found an audience over the last 500 years.
As the title might suggest, Everyman (Ejiofor) represents all mankind. In fact, all of the characters, except God/Good Deeds (Kate Duchene) and Death (Dermot Crowley), symbolically represent vessels of human value – friends, family, money/possessions – and then dereliction, expressed not only through dialogue, but also through the work of choreographer and movement director Javier de Frutos.
God, fed up with the state of humanity, chooses Everyman to make an account of his time on earth and sends Death as his messenger. Everyman, arrogant and oblivious, is completely immersed in the hedonistic drugs, booze and sensual over-indulgence of his 40th birthday. In the aftermath, he dismisses Death as an irrelevant because he, Everyman, ‘matters’.
Even as he begins to believe the message Death brings, and sets out on his journey to find, amongst all the people and possessions in his life, just one who will stand by him in the face of God, he still believes that somehow, he can reclaim his life. It is a quiet and dignified moment, after Everyman has acquired the companionship of Knowledge (Penny Layden) and revisited his younger self – the distant, innocent child Everyboy (Jeshaiah Murray) who ‘always says please and thank you’, that he acquires real enlightenment. His pilgrimage has occurred in the time it takes for a stoned, high hedonist to fall from a roof at 9.81 metres per second per second.
For 90 minutes, with no interval, Ejiofor is rarely off stage. He is, by nature, an intense actor, who consistently fully inhabits his characters. He is, simply, believable. On a spare black set, punctuated with giant light and video projections and animated by William Lyons’ electronic score, Norris’ direction extends beyond setting the scene of a frenetic, self-indulgent existence to put Ejiofor’s character commitment to full use. At times, it felt a little like his energy output was somehow a substitute for the lack of props and scenery – quite the physical burden for the better part of an hour and a half. I’m not sure that with talent like his and the power of the re-worked material, it was strictly necessary.
Everyman is someone with whom some will identify, some will recognise, but most may well despise which, as a morality play, may be the point. Surely, in his position, we would have done better, you wonder…And yet, it is the quiet, accepting Everyman who embraces the inevitability of Death – God’s ‘control mechanism’ for humanity – that really draws the empathy. Ejiofor sits serene in his new-found understanding of the beauty of life through wit and capability, and you find yourself caring for him, utterly transfixed.
This is an insanely relevant play, exploring what materialism and its pursuit really weighs against love for your fellow man. Carol Ann Duffy’s prose is smart, funny, desperate and evocative, and whilst God/Good Deeds, Knowledge and Goods all have their share of excellent one-liners, it is definitely Death who benefitted most from her masterful turn of phrase. She applies aspects of modern life to what some might mistakenly consider an archaic dilemma: that the good and evil deeds of one’s life will be tallied by God after death.
One other great pleasure offered by this production is the multi-talented and satisfyingly diverse cast – another stand out, of course, being Ms Sharon D Clarke in fine voice as sick, loving Mother. Always a delight to behold, Ms Clarke’s haunting vocals complement the reflective intent of the journey and heighten the sense of insightful rediscovery. Wonderful.
I wish you luck in your endeavours to catch this production, because I think, deservedly, seats will be very difficult to come by.
Everyman previewed 22nd-28th April and runs between 29th April – 30th August, with selected matinees, captioned and audio-described performances, 7.30pm
On Wednesday July 22nd, Chiwetel Ejiofor will be reflecting on the challenges and rewards of playing Everyman, 3-4 pm, Olivier Theatre. (£5/£4)
There will be a live cinema screening in selected venues on July 16th @ 7pm. To find out your nearest cinema go to: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/50433-everyman
For more information visit:
- Website: www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
- Twitter @nationaltheatre / #NTEveryman
reviews of Everyman for the british blacklist by @DescantDeb