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Chiwetel Ejiofor leading the cast of Everyman at the Olivier, National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Chiwetel Ejiofor leading the cast of Everyman at the Olivier, National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

As entrances go it’s quite something. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Everyman is first seen tumbling from above, descending slowly to earth by way of wires, flailing against a backdrop of flickering video.

It’s one of a number of arresting images that pepper Rufus Norris’ production. The 15th century morality play, freely adapted by Carol Ann Duffy, is the second production in his inaugural season as artistic director of the National and the first he has directed. Like Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, it feels in part like a statement of intent, in its themes, in the way he peoples his stage.

Ejiofor’s Everyman is a sharp-suited man of means. His birthday party is a debauched affair, full of dancing, drinking and Hunter S Thompson quantities of cocaine. Kate Duchene’s God, who fittingly is also a cleaner, tells him his number’s up: there will be a reckoning, a settling of accounts. Dermot Crowley’s deliciously dry Death has Everyman in his sights and, in desperation, he searches for someone to accompany him on the journey that every one of us will have to one day make.

There are times – especially in the beginning – where the production and the text seem to insist too vehemently on their contemporary relevance. There’s an ill-advised bit of rapping. Everyman takes a selfie. But the production eventually stops straining and it settles.

Ejiofor is one of those performers who effortlessly holds the eye, even when he’s just standing there, silent and sweating, but when given a speech to deliver, he all but lights up, investing Duffy’s words with emotion and nuance.

Though Everyman (or Ev as his parents call him) is essentially alone, he is surrounded by people, family and friends, by material things. The large cast are tightly choreographed by Javier de Frutos and the production as a whole is visually rich. The use of Tal Rosner’s video backdrop is striking.

Structurally the play is episodic in nature. It contains a number of elegant sequences, the backwards unravelling of Everyman’s life memory by memory being one of them, but at other times its hand feels far heavier. The scene in which he converses with his Worldly Goods, here personified as a gaggle of gilded retail assistants, feels cumbersome and strangely outdated.

Throughout there are some nice nods to the play’s medieval source material, in the wagons of rubbish that circle the stage, in the scattering of Latin and in William Lyons’ music which mixes instruments from the period with traces of Donna Summer.

Though it strikes an occasional hollow note there’s a pleasing mix of irreverence and invention at play here and Ejiofor is commanding in the way he – more so than the writing – takes an allegorical figure and makes a man of him.

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An inventive updating of the medieval morality play with a performance of real power at its heart