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Everyman at the National Theatre: a remarkable new version brings a medieval morality play to life for contemporary audiences

All earthly things is but vanity:
Beauty, Strength, and Discretion do man forsake,
Foolish friends, and kinsmen, that fair spake –

All fleeth save Good Deeds, and that am I. *

The poet Carol Ann Duffy has adapted the late-medieval morality play Everyman for the National Theatre’s summer season, and the production (choreographed by Javier de Frutos) is a stunning piece of theatre.  The cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Everyman and Kate Duchêne as both God and Good Deeds, is superb. Everyman must make his way through life until he has to leave it, with Death a continually goading presence at his side.  He can take nothing to the grave with him. But through a series of bizarre and illusory encounters with all life has to give, good and bad, he learns that he has a soul. Duffy distils the existential drama from this play, refiguring Everyman as a human being in a deracinated, posthumanist world of digital knowledge, pleasure and consumption.
Everyman runs until 30 August if you are lucky enough to be in London this summer. We study this and other medieval plays on our level 4 module Fundamentals: Myth and Drama, analyzing its relationship to English theatre history and thinking about the debt Shakespeare owes to the medieval stage.  It’s rewarding to read the plays in their fifteenth-century liturgical context and consider historical staging, audiences and productions. Yet Every(wo)man also evades the historical moment from which (s)he emerges, facing the same joys and conflicts in the twenty-first century as (s)he did when print culture emerged in northern Europe.
I watched Everyman as an NT Live broadcast at the Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury, which has a great cinema programme. I hope you can catch an NT screening at your local cinema this summer – and if not, book your tickets now for Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet in October.
Have a wonderful August.
*From A.C. Cawley’s modern translation, Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, ed. A.C. Cawley (London: Everyman Dent, 1977), pp. 205-34, ll. 870-73. Images from the NT Live website, here.

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