O Death! Where is thy sting?

scan0010Everyman is being presented at The National Theatre in an adaptation by Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate. Everyman in this version is a 21st Century rich, globe-trotting, party-animal. Based on the 15th Century story of the Summoning of Everyman, Carol Ann Duffy has transformed this tale into a vision of today, perhaps not shared by everyone. At his 40th Birthday party, fuelled by drink and clouds of white powder, Everyman is approached by Death and plummets from the balcony of his apartment. Everything else that happens, happens in his head.

This play, brilliantly staged, begins with Good Deeds/God (Kate Duchêne) configured as a charwoman with broom, mop and bucket, clearing up another party, knowing all the time that it will all need to be done again in the morning; she summons Death (Dermot Crowley, a greatly under-rated actor in my view) and sends him to Everyman, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, to summon him to a reckoning for his life.

The party attended by Fellowship, Everyman’s friends, acts like a Greek Chorus with names – Passion, Vanity, Strength etc. and they whirl like dervishes in a party-mad frenzy, ending up with a synchronised coke-snort, finally leaving Everyman, comatose, wrapped in Police Crime Tape on a table, from where he vomits into Good Deeds’ handy bucket, offering her a ten-pound note by way of thanks.

Aware that his reckoning will not amount to much, Everyman appeals to his friends, family and chattels to join him on his perilous journey – “long, hard and dangerous”. Needless to say, none of them can or will come with him. The episode in which he begs his goods to come with him is a classic. Four gold mannequins welcome him to an emporium of excess, the description of each floor getting more luxurious as it rises finally to the exclusive top level. And his credit is good, so he can have his every dream except company on the long, hard and dangerous journey:

Run with me on this one.
The customer is always fucking right.
It’s not for this world, see, it’s for the next.
I have to present myself to God
and give a true account of how I’ve lived.
Well, this is who I’ve been –
call it obscene,
but I’ve always loved my stuff.
I’ll take you with me – now –
let’s call God’s bluff.
No black marks here.
My credit’s good.
Got it? Understood?

But of course, it doesn’t work like that, Goods respond with the full truth, that of the Biblical “rust and moth doth corrupt” version.

No, no, no, sir, time to get real.
We’re yours to purchase for a while;
a season of benign prosperity,
in which we rust, corrode and basically fuck up
your moral compass. Interest-free.
Small print: we couldn’t give a toss for thee.
You men should know
you cannot take us with you when you go.
And when you’re dead, another punter stands in line…

Finally, Everyman gets the picture. Left alone he encounters Knowledge, a bag-lady tramp, and between them they share wisdom (hers) and drink (hers). Everyman summons up one good deed, he gave someone ten pounds (partly, mind, because he had been sick in her bucket!) Is one good deed enough to present to God? Hardly, and then Good Deeds appears and is sick herself, weakening because of the thoughtlessness of Everyman, who could easily have been more generous.

Having begun to see the error of his ways, Everyman is confronted with Everyboy: a small version of himself on a scooter. Everyboy having dismissed him as a failure with one friend and one shoe tells him to say sorry, and to say thank you.

In the denouement, Everyman thinks about his life in years, and remembers the good things that he has ignored or forgotten. Good Deeds and Knowledge listen, and Death scornfully reminds them that it is a bit late in the day for this claptrap…”Thy Will be done”. But we are reminded:

God/Good Deeds:
It will indeed.
I see his soul, its flickering little flame.
I am well pleased.
Religion is a man-made thing.
It too will pass.
It rains.
The soil will grow new grass upon this grave
in time.
And as for Time, it’s time
to bring him for his Reckoning with me.
I love this man –
and I, to every man, must give
perpetual love.
It cannot die. My tragedy. Absurd.
But there we are –
in the Beginning was the Word –
one way of putting it.
Let there be light
and let him see his God.

Not only is this a superb rendering of the story, the acting is excellent and this production should go into the canon of memorable theatrical moments. It is profoundly moving. I really hope The National Theatre extend the run and release more seats and if they do, I most strongly urge you to go.

The extracts I have chosen hardly give even a flavour of the brilliance of Carol Ann Duffy’s language and verse. There are plenty of other gems from this poet, more than three in the form of little books from the Picador Press which come out each Christmas. They present the familiar in a new and unfamiliar way, infinitely collectable. Beautifully presented and illustrated.


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