THEATRE Everyman, The Other Place, Stratford-on-Avon

Medieval morality as you've never seen it before - Theatre de Complicite-style. The production has some divine touches: if only the accents didn't bring you back down to Earth. By Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor
Saturday 16 November 1996 00:02

Given the recent productions of Goethe's cosmos-spanning Faust and Byron's abyss-traversing Cain, the RSC seems to be taking it as its duty to yank us to the theological extremities on a fairly regular basis. This policy continues now with a revival in the Other Place of Everyman, the anonymous late 15th-century morality play whose generic title character achieves heaven at the end, but only after a long, arduous pilgrimage teaches him the worthlessness of worldly things, the treacherous inconstancy of friends, kindred and of one's own inner faculties and the contrasting steadfast value of the sacraments and of good deeds.

Anyone who thinks that medieval morality plays consist in the stiff shuffling round of faceless abstractions will be puzzled as to why Katie Mitchell, who is running this year's Other Place season, has recruited Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni to stage the piece. These performer-directors are best known for the expressionist physicality of their work with Theatre de Complicite, but, as the introduction to the new tie-in edition of the play rightly points out, Everyman has many proto-expressionist and proto- absurdist elements that fast-forward you to playwrights such as Beckett and Ionesco (not to mention the Durrenmatt of that modern morality play The Visit, which was one of Complicite's greatest hits).

Expertly deploying a corporeally quirky cast on a barish set of rock- strewn and scorched, baked earth, and using costumes and music that have a 20th-century East European feel, the production revels in fleshing out this death manual's theological propaganda and implications. That is evident from the outset, where we see Everyman (played by the physically imposing black actor, Joseph Mydell) soaking in a tin bath, his long limbs dangling outside of it, the eyes on his flung-back head closed in luxurious content. Tellingly, on a nearby rock, there lies, alongside his wallet, a gold Rolex watch: lost in sybaritism, Everyman forgets that you never know when your time may be up and you will be called to account.

On the next occasion when he sinks, exhaling with quiet horror, into this tub, it has become his earth-filled grave. Between those two points, the production wheels in all those personified types who make, often by default, his pilgrimage a spiritual progress. These include Good Deeds - presented as a potato-faced, Scots-accented peasant woman (Myra McFadyen), who (in a very Beckettian touch) strains unavailingly to rise from the ground until Everyman's confession of his sins renews her strength - and Beauty, Strength and the Five Wits who zoom in, like some very alternative circus act, on a ramshackly makeshift motorbike and sidecar.

The production is best at the clowning verve with which it conveys and subtly modernises the wriggling bad faith of Everyman's false friends and the swarm of charlatan priests. It is less persuasive in its depiction of the hero's penitential progress and his assumption into heaven. Rather than lash himself, this Everyman drags round, oxen-like, a rock tied to his ankle. Fine, except that this loses the intended correspondence with Christ's Passion. And some of the characteristic Complicite subversiveness spills over into areas where a straight-faced bow to orthodoxy might seem to be required. The final tableau, in which, up in Heaven, a more than mildly brainwashed-looking angel (Edward Woodall) holds a still out-of- it Everyman in a Pieta pose, does not have one pining to gatecrash the alleged party at this address.

The American actor, Joseph Mydell, with his large, anguished features and his lean, powerful physique, brings a charismatic suffering dignity to the central role. Vocally, though, his delivery is hampered by the fact that he is being called upon to use a very proper "poetry-speaking" English accent. The over-careful elocution cuts you off from the emotion. What, after all, is to stop a representative sinner from sounding American?

It's ironic, in fact, that the question of accents should come up here, for when William Poel directed his historic revival of Everyman in London in 1901, the critic of The Times complained that the actor playing Fellowship had a North Country intonation. And we all know that any self-respecting abstraction would be pure Home Counties, vocally. Perhaps Heaven is full of people who have the diction of Patricia Hughes and Purgatory crammed with Angela Rippon sound-alikes. Is there a hierarchy of accents, even in Eternity?

In rep at The Other Place, Stratford. Booking: 01789-295623

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