Catriona Scott reviews ‘Everyman’ produced by the JOOT Theatre Company, which went up as a part of the On the Rocks Festival.
Billed by the JOOT Theatre Company as a popular medieval morality play re-imagined for the modern world ‘by setting it on the context of a dream,’ Everyman certainly seemed an unusual and innovative piece. As a Joint Honours Medieval History & English student, this looked to be right up my street, and, although I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, I was definitely excited to be introduced, even in a re-imagined form, to medieval theatre. Everyman is an allegorical play that explores Christian salvation and how to attain it. Everyman (Hollie Whitfield), the character who represents mankind, is confronted by Death and, in the knowledge that God will judge him on the basis of his good and evil deeds, hopes to convince his various companions to join him in his final few days of life, in the hope of improving his account and ascending to Heaven. Unable to persuade any of the others, Fellowship or Knowledge, [material] Goods or Strength to accompany him to the grave, at the play’s close Everyman comes to the realisation that he is essentially alone, and worth nothing without his Good Deeds (Claire Merten).
The production began with quiet, stark simplicity, in contrast to the complicated theological journey the play embarks on. Meirion Jordan stood alone in a spotlight and played an eldritch tune on the fiddle and as his music faded away the Prologue began (spoken by the Messenger, Ian Low) and the play too, in earnest. Jordan and Low remained at the back of the stage throughout; Jordan playing a drum almost continually and contributing to the feeling of impending doom as Everyman’s end drew closer, while Low moved both props and set, including the hands of a large clock, which was at the centre of the sparsely lit stage, showing the passage of time both in the world of the play, and in our own, even more clearly.
This same sparseness cannot be said of the costumes, which were varied throughout with hints of the nineteenth century or, in some cases, almost futuristic. The kimono Everyman wore on top of white, glittery trousers was disconcerting for a good portion of the play as the items were jarring, but when the black kimono was replaced with the white penitential gown in a later scene, the reason for this disparity became clear. One other design of note, for good reason, was that of Death (Kenneth Spence), dressed as a miner, helmet and all; for one who dwells underground, this was a fantastic concept, all credit to the set and costume designer, Jo George.
The portrayals of such a wide variety of characters as the allegorical Kindred, Confession and Beauty, as just three examples from the eighteen strong cast, were mostly excellent. Kindred and Cousin (Elizabeth Rogers and Mayalani Moes) provided an entertaining back and forth as a Tweedledee and Tweedledum-esque pair, physically bound together, and Claire Merten was the picture of innocence and helplessness as the initially frail Good Deeds. Hollie Whitfield as Everyman carried the production, brilliantly embodying her character’s fear and anguish in both soliloquies and dialogue, speaking with great clarity and understanding.
The same cannot be said for the entire cast, unfortunately. For some, it seemed as though they were merely reciting their lines instead of adding to them with characterisation, while others seemed uncertain; one member of the cast noticeably consulted a script onstage for some speeches. As well as this, some of the actors spoke too quietly to be clearly understood; I was only in the fourth row and just managed to hear some of the dialogue. With such archaic language, clarity was essential for understanding what was happening between the characters. For the most part, however, the performances were earnest, and the cast worked well together. One image that stayed with me was several of the allegorical figures swearing to help Everyman by placing their hands on the cross she held, a wonderful tableau. The scene where Everyman punishes herself by flagellation was also notable; in the background Low provided the sound effect with an actual whip while Jordan played a mournful tune, with Everyman crying out both in pain and prayer.
Everyman was only an hour long, but it incorporated a great many complex themes and ideas in difficult dialogue. I can personally say that I understood what was going on throughout, but that may only be due to my having studied Middle English over the past year; for some, especially those sitting further from the stage, I fear what was said onstage may not have been as comprehensible. However, what this production may have lacked at times in terms of clarity and diction, the company more than made up for with their enthusiasm and their cohesiveness as a group. Overall, I greatly enjoyed this introduction to the world of medieval morality plays, and I hope to see more from this company in the future.