For ye shall hear, how our heaven king
Calleth Everyman to a general reckoning:
Give audience, and hear what he doth say.
~ Messenger, The Somonyng of Everyman
In some ways, it takes a certain amount of enterprise to put on a play that has been around for half a millennium; it becomes a distinct sort of challenge to make it feel both engaging and innovative to a modern audience. Joot Theatre Company, based in Dundee, took on this challenge admirably in their production of Everyman, a mediaeval play concerned with morality, under the direction of Jo George. Around forty people filled the Byre Theatre in St Andrews to enjoy the spectacle.
Immediately, our attention is arrested by a fiddle player, resplendent in a spotlight with top hat and waistcoat, playing a mournful, solemn piece to draw us in to the atmosphere of the play. Meirion Jordan discusses in the programme his use of “traditional modes of underscoring recitation” as the Musician, and his playing fades in and out from the background at intervals throughout. The Messenger (Ian Low) also makes a notable entrance down the stairs to the right of the audience, prancing in a top hat and cane to introduce the setting, as quoted above.
The eponymous Everyman (an outstanding performance by Hollie Whitfield) is confronted by Death (Kenneth Spence), and informed that her time to leave this earth is fast approaching. The distraught Everyman is told that she must find a companion to partner her in her journey to the afterlife, wherever it may lead her ultimately. However, the many companions she asks along the way – from friends and relatives to anthropomorphic manifestations of her wealth, her beauty and her strength – are all reluctant to journey with her to the grave.
In spite of its solemn themes, Everyman is not without its comedic scenes. Fellowship (a rambunctious Martin Laidlaw) splays his limbs and throws himself with vigour about the stage, and is suitably lecherous towards the Lusty Wench (Fiona Lindsay). Likewise, Kindred and Cousin (Elizabeth Rogers and Mayalani Moes), being tied up together at elbow and foot, produce merriment when shuffling about the stage, and Conor Ogg brought about the biggest laugh of all when wheeled onto the stage on a metal “dolly” cart, glittering in gold bling from head to toe, representing Everyman’s worldly Goods.
As the plot deepens and Everyman’s fate looks increasingly bleak, some cracks show more prominently in the play’s formation. Whilst entertaining in their physical movements, the actresses portraying Kindred and Cousin, particularly the latter, are far too quiet in delivering their lines; it is a strain to hear them in a silent theatre. The Voice of God (Iain Brodie), suitably gravelly and authoritative, is thwarted by a microphone with painfully loud reverb in his first monologue, and with too little volume altogether during the second. There are also some synchronisation issues with lighting cues and positioning, albeit only ending up as minor distractions.
These drawbacks, however, do not ruin the overall experience. The prop management and costuming, in particular, must be applauded – from Death’s curious dressing in a miner’s outfit, complete with helmet and pickaxe, to the mortar board and gown of Knowledge (Sean O’Dowd). The Messenger remained busy throughout by rearranging chairs and tables to change scenes during actors’ dialogues, or to move the giant clock hung upon the backdrop forward to signify the passage of time – there were very few blackouts to move props, and this was a particular strength of the show’s design.
The Musician serves as an apt and effective accompaniment to the action on stage too – a bodhran playing rhythmic pulses to accentuate the most significant “beats” of the dialogue.With a second performance scheduled in Crieff later in April, there is every reason to believe Joot’s Everyman will see a repeat of the success it was here.