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5 May 2015

Carol Ann Duffy’s Everyman is mordantly funny – yet poignant

With screen actors taking the lead, Everyman and American Buffalo sparkle with cinematic swagger.

By Mark Lawson

Olivier/National Theatre, London SE1

American Buffalo
Wyndham’s Theatre, London WC2

Although the title of the medieval morality play Everyman evokes universality, the new version at the National Theatre teems with people of special distinction. Rufus Norris, in his first production as artistic director, has a text by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, movement from the hot-footed choreographer Javier de Frutos and, leading the cast, Chiwetel Ejiofor, commendably still keen on theatre after his Oscar-nominated star performance in the film 12 Years a Slave.

Becoming, in this version, “Ev”, a City banker who celebrates his 40th birthday as if immortal, Ejiofor is lowered by wire into the Olivier’s auditorium. The setting is contemporary but the dramatic arc unchanged across 500 years: the protagonist, on the brink of extinction, must give God an ­account of what his life amounted to.

At a bureaucratic level, the Norris regime began badly with the sudden departure, on the eve of the opening season, of the National’s new chief executive, Tessa Ross. Artistically, however, this show confirms the continuing development of the spectacular stage imagination shown in earlier Norris productions such as the verbatim musical London Road, and encourages excitement about what his tenure may deliver.

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The 100-minute production pulses with stunning tableaux. Ejiofor’s vertiginous entrance gives way to brightly masked and furiously danced bacchanals, depicting his hedonism, before a series of confrontations with his past which include a tsunami that feels terrifyingly real. The action culminates
in Everyman sitting on a bench with a dozen blue-clad actors who represent his senses – an image that recalls the haunted male forms in the Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz’s installation Towards the Corner.

Duffy’s verse has always married classical allusion with populist vernacular and this script typically encompasses Latin prayers and recitations of Liverpool football teams. Sharp-eared gags lie alongside an extraordinary final speech in which the dying man counts down his life from 40 to birth, with a memory for each year: “Nineteen. Doing tequila shots. Rat-arsed. Laughing.” The Faber play text merits reading separately as great poetry.

Part of the power is that while the 15th-century pieties are often wittily debunked – God (Kate Duchêne) takes earthly form as a female office cleaner and Death (Dermot Crowley) is a mordantly funny CSI-style pathologist – the show is also emotionally jolting. Utilising the magnetic watchability of a skilled screen actor, Ejiofor wrenchingly presents Ev’s terror, regret and eventual apprehension (in two senses) of a spiritual dimension. Visually and verbally magnificent, this modernised vision of heaven (until 30 August) is a hell of a start for Norris.

The eagerness of screen stars to keep doing plays is the positive aspect of the relationship between Hollywood and the theatre (a malign one is the number of movies that become mediocre musicals), and the Golden Globe-winners Damian Lewis and John Goodman front the 40th-anniversary West End revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo (until 27 June). Cinematic swagger is also transmitted by Paul Wills’s set, a vertically compressed close-up of a Chicago junk shop. Rusty and dusty bicycles, sleds and chairs hang above the stage in a vast, jagged cloud. There is just enough room in the clutter below for the characters to pace anxiously before resting on seats salvaged from old Amtrak trains.

Goodman is Donny, the slow, kind shop-owner not entirely at ease with the strutting masculinity of his sort-of-friend Teach, a mouthy delusionist whom Lewis entertainingly plays, as much American Hustle as American Buffalo, got up in aviator shades, a plum-coloured suit and a combination of tache, sideburns and goatee so peculiar that it may be calculated to make an identity parade impossible if the cops get wind of the main plotline (to steal from a local collector the antique nickel that gives the play its name). The cast is completed by Tom Sturridge as Bob, specified in Mamet’s dialogue as a recovering junkie but rarely looking, with his shaven head and twitching eye, as much like one as here.

An early mentor and promoter of Mamet was Harold Pinter – the two writers shared a vision of human beings as territorial animals, with words as claws extended or withdrawn – and though “Mametian” doesn’t have the adjectival resonance of “Pinteresque”, both dramatists, having found an entirely fresh style of dialogue, became victims of a stylised way of presenting it: slow and threatening for Pinter, fast and sarcastic for Mamet.

In later days, Pinter encouraged directors to take out the pauses and go quicker; Daniel Evans, the director of this American Buffalo, applies the opposite approach to Mamet. The more meditative pace sometimes loses the vicious rhythm of the dialogue but Lewis brings impressive musical variation to a line as outwardly unpromising as “Bobby Bobby Bobby Bobby Bobby.” And, in its central metaphor of people convincing themselves that money is worth much more than it is, the play has proved economically prophetic and electorally relevant.