August 20, 2011

The Summoning of Everyman (Shakespeare Institute Players) @ Holy Trinity Church

Everyman is a genuinely powerful text. Whether you’re religious or not, this anonymous medieval morality play gets to the absolute nub of the big questions. What can we take with us? What is the point of life? And at the end of it all, are we ultimately alone?

The Shakespeare Institute Players made a virtue of their usual performance venue being out of commission by doing a site-specific piece in Holy Trinity Church. Director Jason Burg is researching the use of churches as performance spaces, and this production drew on its surroundings throughout. Good Deeds lay crumped under a blanket leaning against the altar, the Doctor waited to welcome people into the main space, Five Wits referred to the church’s presentation copy of the Bible, and Knowledge gestured to the glorious stained glass windows that dominated the space. It was an evocative space for a religious message, and one which the production treated respectfully.

The staging was simple, and made the most of the episodic structure of the play. Harriet Laing's Everyman entered the choir from the nave surrounded by the rest of the company, who voiced God collectively, standing round the edges of the space. Helen Osborne's black-clad Death swaggered into the space shortly thereafter, addressing God with a deferential yet slightly mocking tone, emphasised by a quiet chuckle as she prepared to claim Everyman's soul. Formal patterning organised the progression of characters: Victoria Mountford's Good Deeds was huddled up under a blanket at the altar, Cecilia Kendall-White's Knowledge strolled around the altar space, and the assorted kindred and flaky qualities passed from the choir into the nave of the church as they forsook Everyman, returning to worldly places - where the Doctor finally emerged from, as well as Everyman's wicker coffin.

Everyman was played as a woman (Chaka Khan jokes were restricted to the programme), a decision which saw the company use obvious materialist stereotypes to comic effect - Everyman was entranced by the pair of beautiful shoes that John Curtis's Goods held up for her, slipping into a longing voice even as she admonished Goods. The obsession of this Everyman with appearances and possessions was made obvious from the start, as she appeared adjusting her bright red top. She was gloriously oblivious to Death's intent, and her initial selfish shock progressed through the piece to anger and panic, and finally to something approaching transcendent acceptance.

The play is powerful in itself. The gradual forsaking of Everyman by her kin, her Fellowship and her Goods was a straightforward series of vignettes, made comic by the Texan drawl of Red Smucker and Drew Hippel as Kindred and Cousin, and the fey performance of Curtis as Goods. It was with the appearance of Knowledge that the play began to take on its more forceful and harrowing aspects. The scene of penance, presided over by the clerical Confession, saw Everyman kneeling and flogging herself hard with a quite nasty-looking piece of rope, while Knowledge looked coldly on. The subsequent emergence of Good Deeds added an impression of safety to the subsequent scenes, framing Everyman's journey within an instructive context, but this made the second set of abjurrations all the more hard. Beauty, Strength, Five Wits and Discretion were presented as a formidable set of companions who Everyman placed her faith in. As they began leaving, one by one, her terror was moving. The fear of death, prompted by the appearance of the coffin, was effectively captured in these scenes; and, as Laing lay down in the coffin, one felt the import of the issues that the text was confronting.

The experience of seeing a secular production of a didactic and Catholic-inflected theological piece in an Anglican church was an unusual one, and in some ways it feels odd to put on such an instructive play as a piece of historical interest when it still holds such a powerful vernacular message about the importance of good deeds and of recognising one's own mortality. A thought-provoking evening, and one that left me wishing I had a chance to see Mankind in the near future too.


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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