Kings Cross Theatre, March 12
It’s probably unsurprising that we don’t do morality plays any more, given we don’t really do morality – although US playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins would presumably argue that’s just when we need a moral prod the most. Certainly the timing of this Cross Pollinate production of his Everybody could not be more apt, as fear of pestilence sweeps the land, just as sweating sickness swept England when the antecedent of Jacobs-Jenkins’ play, Everyman (of unknown authorship, and widely considered the first play in English) was penned around 1500.
At that time death was much more of a day-to-day reality, with infant-mortality rates and epidemics contributing to an average life expectancy of less than 40. Everyman was written to jolt people into thinking a little sooner about the implications of death for the way they lived their lives.
Jacobs-Jenkins is, with a sly wink or two, trying to trigger the same effect, in a play that shares most of the original’s characters: notably God and Death. While God is a crusty, embittered, Old Testament creation who, given his/her omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence, could be blessed with some cleverer lines, Death is a doll. Played by Annie Byron, this Death is more your cuddly aunty than your grim reaper. At God’s bidding she singles Everybody out from the audience, and tells them they must go with her to face the Almighty and account for how they have lived their lives.
Apart from Byron’s Death and Giles Gartrell-Mills’ God (and other roles), the remaining parts are delegated on the night by an on-stage lottery. Isaro Kayitesi scored the central role of Everybody, who tries to convince Friendship, Cousin, Kinship, Stuff, Strength, Beauty, Mind, Senses and Love to accompany her in following Death to her accounting with God.
The play – like life – comes into sharper focus the closer it comes to its conclusion. Jacobs-Jenkins’ longer speeches can pall, but the snappier the exchanges, the more engaging they are. And if the performances in Gabriel Fancourt’s production are uneven, perhaps that was all but inevitable with the actors swapping roles.
While it’s not great theatre by any stretch, it does offer pause for thought, a few laughs, some delightful cannibalising of its own conceits, and a Death you’d run to with open arms.