Chiwetel Ejiofor in 'Everyman' (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Chiwetel Ejiofor in ‘Everyman’ (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Chiwetel Ejifor makes quite an entrance in Everyman, the first production directed by Rufus Norris since taking over as artistic director of London’s National Theatre. The 12 Years a Slave star plunges in slow-mo from the heavens into a sunken onstage pit, a symbolic precursor to his character’s plight in this updated version of the classic medieval morality play about one fellow’s end-of-life reckoning with God and Death.

Ejifor’s Ev is a high flyer in another sense, too: a hedonistic lad-about-town who kicks off the show with a coke-fueled, electronica-scored 40th birthday party that lasts a smidge too long. But the debauchery produces not only a hangover but the arrival of the drily witty figure of Death (Dermot Crowley).

God, meanwhile, continues to move in mysterious ways — in this case, pushing a broom and dustbin as a dumpy cleaning lady with a world-weary attitude toward her wayward creations. Kate Duchêne plays the role with a skillful blend of omniscience and resignation.

How do you retell a morality play in an age in which organized religion — indeed, a belief in God — has been pushed to the margins? In Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s spiritedly modern free-verse translation, which veers from blunt and bawdy to lyrical in a flash, you simply recast the nature of sin in more secular terms. The greatest blasphemy for our contemporary, post-religious Ev is not blasphemy but selfishness and a failure to confront challenges like homelessness and environmental degradation that threaten all of existence.

Duffy hews pretty closely to the episodic nature of the source material, which doesn’t yield many narrative surprises. That leaves Norris to soup up the production on the National Theatre’s cavernous Olivier stage, with colorful lighting, projections, masks, and technically accomplished set pieces. It’s a showy calling card of a show, backed by a compelling performance by Ejiofor, who commands the stage with an initial swagger that bleeds seamlessly into real vulnerability. Grade: A–

Ejiofor and Kate Duchêne in 'Everyman' (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Ejiofor and Kate Duchêne in ‘Everyman’ (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)