the first show programmed by the new Artistic Director was anything to go by, we would have been in for a dull time at the National Theatre over the next few years, but we've got something more interesting - if eccentrically so - in the first play Rufus Norris has taken on to direct himself. It may be a new era but Norris goes right back to the beginning of extant English theatre with the mediaeval morality play Everyman, "Ev" to his friends in this new version by Carol Ann Duffy. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Ev, whom we first meet tumbling through the air to the stage in slow motion, in what could be a symbolic Fall of Man but turns out to be somewhat more prosaic: An accident after a coke-fuelled 40th birthday party. Death (Dermot Crowley) arrives to tell him his time is up, and soon Ev will need to make a reckoning with God (Kate Duchêne,) and justify the way he's lived his life.
Everyman tries to rally his friends, family and even his possessions to back him up, but nobody's willing to accompany him on a journey there may be no way back from, and he's left to face his fate alone.
Ejiofor is an actor who's shown a great deal of range in the past, and he does something I found quietly impressive here: As his name suggests, Everyman could be any man, and apart from the fact that we mainly find out about his faults, he's by definition not a strongly defined personality; but in his frightened, sweat-drenched performance, Ejiofor makes you care about him and his growing belief that maybe he does have a soul after all.
He's helped and hindered on his way by a chorus of friends including Nicholas Karimi, Nick Holder, Clemmie Sveaas and Joshua Lacey; a family that includes Sharon D Clarke as his mother - meaning Norris can also pepper the soundtrack with her powerful voice adding some haunting moments. He eventually finds Knowledge in the form of a homeless woman with a cock* (Penny Layden,) before meeting Duchêne's God who's been on stage from the start - a cleaning lady who got the universe all nice and shiny in the beginning, and will have to mop up the mess once it's done.
If this is a statement of intent from Norris it suggests he wants to blow the cobwebs off the classics and, perhaps, give them new meaning: For all that the play is basically a religious lecture, his Everyman feels modern in more than just the flashing gold and neon. Maybe I'm still angry enough about the election result to find references to it everywhere, but this does feel like a very human rail against selfishness, whether or not you believe you'll be judged by a cosmic charlady at the end. Always stylish - with energetic dance and movement sequences by Javier de Frutos, and a showstopping moment involving a wind machine - the production takes a little while to find its feet, but once the shape of it becomes clear Norris has found some very modern and recognisable emotion in amongst the mediaeval theology.
Everyman in a version by Carol Ann Duffy is booking in repertory until the 15th of August at the National Theatre's Olivier.
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.
*this gave me flashbacks to university, where in one show Roz Blessed also flopped out a prosthetic cock that had been sewn into her trousers. Technology's moved on though - Layden's cock actually pees.