Thinking about the National Theatre’s 2015 production of Everyman, a modern-language adaptation of the medieval morality play by Carol Ann Duffy, directed by Rufus Norris and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.
It is indeed a modern spin. The original doesn’t open with Everyman snorting long lines of cocaine with partying friends and accidentally falling off the top of a building. But, as in the original, this version does feature Ev (as he’s nicknamed) turning hither and yon – to friends, family, his material possessions and status markers – hoping to arm himself with better odds when he is judged by God.
There are good reasons why morality plays don’t get produced much, even modern spins on them. As the term suggests, they are overtly moralistic and there is little that annoys contemporary audiences more than having characters on a stage lecture us about how we should be leading our lives. Duffy tries to loosen things up with contemporary references and decidedly un-morality play language. One of the biggest laughs in the show is Ev, as he is about to make his exit into eternity, calling Death a cunt. (I’ve learned from conversations with British playwrights that the c-word over there is viewed much more casually here. Playwright Nina Raine told me that she used it three times in a script in London but felt the resistance in the audience in New York and cut it back to once for her run here.) The staging is tricked up with electronic music and projections, but it follows the main points of the original.
What strikes me about Everyman is how its dramatic DNA is in so much that followed. Charles Dickens adapted the protagonist taking a tour of his life for A Christmas Carol. And Frank Capra and his writers rang further changes for George Bailey’s tour of Bedford Falls on Christmas in It’s a Wonderful Life. The scene featuring Ejiofor snorting coke in a party scene reminded me of Adrian Lester playing Bobby in Sondheim and Furth’s Company at the Donmar and snorting during “What Would We Do Without You?” Company, too, is about someone taking a tour of his life. A speech in Everyman in which the protagonist talks about all the things he will miss about life instantly reminds me of Emily’s speech in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town saying goodbye to life and culminating in the heart-stopping line, “Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you.”
Truth to tell, I would rather watch most of these derivations than sit through a production of the old English version of Everyman and, even with all the technical resources of the National Theatre thrown at it, the modern version demands patience. But I am grateful that I saw it. Grateful that it reminded me how even (especially?) the best of us borrow.