Hilary Menos reviews Miracle Theatre’s Everyman, adapted by Carol Ann Duffy, at the Princess Pavillion, Falmouth
Everyman as a boozy, coke-snorting playboy in a suit of clouds, snarky Death scooting around on a hoverboard, and a set littered with summer festival debris — Miracle Theatre’s Everyman is a riot. It’s a multi-media experience with live music, splendid lighting and clever video projection delivered by a high-energy ensemble cast of four. It is playing in Bristol now, and in Porthtowan and Brighton later this month — go and see it.
Everyman is a late 15th Century morality play which uses allegorical characters — God, Conscience, Strength — to examine the question of Christian salvation and what Man must do to attain it. Unhappy at being forgotten by humanity, God sends Death to require Everyman to make a reckoning of his life. Everyman’s ledger is empty of good deeds and full of bad, and in the little time he has left he must sort this out.
Miracle Theatre uses text adapted by Carol Ann Duffy, first performed at the National Theatre in 2015 with 12 Years a Slave star Chiwetel Ejiofor as Everyman. Duffy has modernised and — to a degree — secularised the medieval text, so God becomes conflated with Good Deeds, Religion is panned as a “man-made thing” which will pass, and Everyman’s crime is not so much failing to be adequately spiritual as failing to be protective of the material environment.
In Duffy’s text, God is a cleaning lady, who cleans the room before the party and mops up Everyman’s vomit. Everyman — or Ev, as his friends call him — has squandered his “God-given time” on “pleasure, treasure, leisure, etcetera” and, when his friends and family won’t intercede for him, he turns to his worldly goods — “Money in the bank. An Alfa Romeo. / A fuck-off house with underfloor heating. / Pictures. A signed Tracey Emin. / This Rolex.” — to stand as his reckoning. Clearly this isn’t going to fly, and the Worldly Goods — shop girls in the cathedral of conspicuous consumption — dismiss him with a “Have a nice day!”. Everyman is gobsmacked. “No fucking way!”.
There’s a strong environmental message running through the play. God says, “The angels weep / to see the ruin of the Earth: / the gathered waters, which I called the seas, / unclean, choking on themselves. / The dry land — fractured, fracked. / The firmament so full of filth / my two Great Lights, to rule the day and night, / have tears in their eyes.” Along his journey Everyman meets Knowledge who says “I know some interesting words, me. / Methane. Petroleum. Carbon dioxide. / Neonicotinoid insecticide.” And there’s a lot of play with litter — our booth was full of tin cans and paper cups and at some point we were encouraged to chuck it into the playing space. In the years since 2015 the climate crisis has become more evident, and Miracle push the environmental message harder, inserting their own topical polemic about trees, deforestation and micro plastics into the show. This doesn’t sit entirely comfortably within the play, but you can’t fault the company’s environmental credentials — their website also features links to positive community initiatives in Falmouth, Bristol, Porthtowan, Brighton and greater Cornwall, from St Agnes-based Goonie Growers community market garden to Brighton Repair Café.
Most theatre audiences will have no issues with Duffy’s text. It does the job, and some of it is funny. But great poetry it is not. And some of it it is a bit cheap. For example the joke in:
Everyman: I have to […] stand in front of God and give a fucking Reckoning of my life.
Conscience: A Fucking Reckoning will take a while! Form an orderly queue.
is basic schoolboy humour. And there are a thousand other poets who could write lines like: “We love you to bits. You’re immense. / But you’re not making any sense.” or “You’re coming on a bit strong. / What’s wrong?”
Sometimes Duffy gets it right; the audience laughed out loud at:
Everyman: I met Death.
Sister: Name-dropper. Last year it was George Clooney.
And the Worldly Goods scene is a blast. The shop girls — coasting across the stage on their chairs with castors — itemise the goods on sale on the various floors of their establishment — first floor for perfumes, grooming and jewellery, second floor for designer clothes: Versace. Gucci. Prada. Beckham, and so on up to floors five and six for knighthoods, football clubs, carbon offset and, of course, philanthropy.
But I was hoping for something a bit more poetic from our ex-Laureate. Occasional lines stuck with me — “great singing whales, winged fowl, cattle” — but Duffy seems to have traded her usual sensual, muscular way with words for topical references and humour. There’s a rap at the start, songs such as ‘All About That Bass’ by Meghan Trainor, lots of slang — “chillax”, “See ya. Wouldn’t wanna be ya.” — and lots of swearing, including a c-bomb, but no real sense of the love of language that courses through her poetry.
Miracle does well with the text, however, cutting parts of it and eliding some of the characters to make it possible for the four-handed ensemble company to share the roles between them. The humour and irony in the script suits the Miracle style, and audiences enjoy their asides and quips — we are asked if we have an Amazon Prime account or still drive petrol / diesel cars and are invited to “have a chat with“ our moral compasses. Giles King, well known to Cornish audiences from Kneehigh Theatre, Wildworks and the Cornish film BAIT, plays Death with waspish panache and a mischievous twinkle, resplendent in shoulder pads and green slinky trousers, and trading his hoverboard for high heeled boots in later scenes. Dean Rehman’s Everyman makes a convincing journey from dilettante pleasure-seeker to insight and reconciliation. Laura Cairns is particularly strong as a Scottish Knowledge and Everyman’s mum, and Charlotte Merriam plays God, in a t-shirt with ‘What’s God Like?’ emblazoned across the front, with gravitas and a thick Brummie accent.
Director Kyla Goodey sets the play in the round, and a new portable performance structure the ‘Fleapit’ — created to provide a safe performance space during Covid — provides a 360-degree canvas, transforming Everyman into a completely immersive experience. Small booths set around the playing space seat seven. Theatre in the round brings its own challenges and Goodey rises to meet these with aplomb, keeping the stage alive and exciting. The canvas provides a screen for lighting and video projection and Goodey uses this to particularly good advantage — at one point it feels as if you are in a circular spaceship orbiting the earth, looking down at forests and fields. It’s a brave decision to close the curtains on the booths for a scene change , and I’m not sure that the voice over speech carries the few minutes of darkness (we didn’t dare peek), but this is a failing of Duffy’s text.
The poignant moments which I was hoping the text would provide come from the players, and in particular the singing. When Everyman has finally seen the effects of his lifestyle on the Earth, Knowledge sings The Act of Contrition in Latin for him and everyone is rapt. Laura Cairns’ singing voice is excellent and provides the most moving moment of the evening, and the family singalong of ‘My Way’ is pretty fine too.
There’s some nice staging — a circle of soil for Everyman to roll around in — and some lovely lighting effects, but the real achievement of the evening is the way Goodey keeps the show fast-paced and energetic, with the threat of chaos always just beyond the circle.