Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
— Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17–28)
I’m not saying that Rufus Norris and Carol Ann Duffy are idiots. Not by a long way. But I do think that their current production of Everyman at the National Theatre flatters to deceive with the illusion of profundity. It doesn’t signify ‘nothing’ – but it also doesn’t signify very much, and what it does gets lost in the noise.
It’s odd. The character of God in the play dismisses religion as something that compresses and reduces her:
Religion is a man-made thing. It too will pass.
The play itself dismisses the excess of the life that Everyman has lived – as does Everyman himself by the end, as stuff that will pass.
And yet – without that stuff, and without ‘religion’ as a thing offering a valid alternative – you want the play to offer you some other meaning to life. What is this God offering, if it is not the stuff of religion? It’s unclear. God expresses extreme distaste for the state of humanity and the world, which she says is getting worse and worse, despite what she offered them. But the nature of this offer is unclear – is it in the incarnation and crucifixion? It is in the original. Yet, this production is open to all religions being ways to the same God and it does not like Religion with a Capital R, and so the alternative life that God offers to humanity remains fuzzy.
It seems like the Senses and Wits who sit with Everyman at the end of his journey are offering him something, but their reminders to him of his life with them are lost over and under each other in a hubub, and while the natural, earthly pleasures that they seem to remind him of (smell, touch, taste) may be healthier for him than the alchol, cocaine, and consumer goods he is tied to at the start, they are not necessarily any less self-indulgent, nor are they less temporal, as they, too, leave him at the end.
Everyman reiterates at his last, ’I think I have a soul…’ reciting it over and over as his Senses and Wits remind him of the good times they had – and it is one of the more powerful momets of the production. But when they leave, and the sound withdraws, the moment leaves with it. The production seems scared of the quiet. Without its music, its images, its dancing and overlapping poetry, it stumbles in its monologues – perhaps unsure it has anything to explain.
At the end, as Everyman goes to his grave, Death asks who is next. He plays ‘Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo…’ with the audience. The audience laughed. It’s not a line played for laughter, and the play wants the audience to recognise that Death could come at any time and demand an account of a life well lived. And yet, the laughter was not uncomfortable. We did not believe that Death was coming for us, or that we might be Everyman.
Maybe we’re all idiots.