The National Theatre. The. National. Theatre. A title heavy with the loom of expectation. No pressure, Everyman. Well, maybe a little bit of pressure for the National’s new captain, Artistic Director Rufus Norris – pressure to make his mark hard, strong and immediate. It just wouldn’t do to make a fizzling fart of a directorial entrance, not at the National Theatre of all places. The everyman himself, Chiwetel Ejiofo, can handle the small pile of pressure, surely. What with a Best Actor BAFTA on his mantle piece and 12 Years A Slave stamping ‘hot property’ on his forehead. What could possibly go wrong as he spouts a story that has transcended century after century, before being reimagined by our very own Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy in this version? Everyman is, at the very least, one big, gift-wrapped package of national treasures. No, I wouldn’t say my expectations were obscenely high. And no, I wouldn’t say my moderate expectations were met. Not wholly.

I struggle to attach myself to a narrative that roots itself in the holy, beginning and ending with God (Kate Duchene), who controls life and controls death. I don’t have any trouble whatsoever with that which she is guarding: earth. God takes it upon herself to cut the life of our hero, Ev, short, on his 40th birthday to be precise. On the evening of his party – an overly long and necessarily empty scene of coke-snorting, luminous shots, neon and unsuccessful rap – he falls off the roof of his expensive penthouse in his expensive suit. Everyman seemingly has more wealth than everyman, but he is made an example of, representing each of our blinkered journeys through life (excuse the generalisation) as we live solely for ourselves. Duffy places ‘ourself’ back into the wider space of the world. Everyman has a responsibility to the vast community of which he is a part. We are ourselves within that world, not merely ourselves for our self. Duffy’s God is left to clean up the mess after each everyman chews up life and spits it back out on the earth without an ounce of gratitude for that world, living solely for selfish gain like individual melanomas on the planet.

We follow Everyman as he jumps time, realising that his life consists of little substance. He has no one to stand by him in his final hours, only stuff, nonsense, things, plastic and paper. Everyman slowly acknowledges that throughout he has opted for greed over graciousness. Ejiofor isn’t likeable, and he isn’t really everyman if lifestyle counts for anything; what he is, though, is subtly and manipulatively captivating.

The design and style of Everyman is the source of my detachment from it, but it has moments of breath-taking brilliance. It seems to concertina from scene to scene. My heart stopped for seconds at a time as Everyman is seen falling, first through film and then through a crashing, devastatingly real body. There are scenes that utilise only a small area of the stage that are heartbreakingly intimate. When Everyman goes to see his family for help and support, the set of their family home consists only of two high back chairs and an oxygen tank. Their dialogue is simple and intricate, wittily underplayed; at one point Everyman’s sister (Michelle Butterly) is explaining to the ignorant Ev the severity of their parents’ illnesses peevishly. She explains that their mother (Sharon D. Clarke) has to wear a colostomy bag, to which the mother quips “hush your mouth, Sir Cliff has one”. His father (Philip Martin Brown) has little more than one line repeated, but is brilliant. The scenes between Ev and another version of himself, in the form of a white woman representing Knowledge (Penny Layden), a tramp with hip flasks of vodka and a northern accent, are just as wonderful. The  characterisation is impeccable and the design minimal. Sometimes the design is striking, but sometimes it is too much and feels focus-pulling and unnecessary.

At one point Everyman throws his money into a giant wind machine to show his ultimate realisation of its insignificance. As it floats through the auditorium and flutters onto the faces, I couldn’t help but think that if the point of Everyman is that materialism ought not to be held in higher esteem than the world, then why have the National thrown so much money at it to elevate style over substance?

Everyman is playing at the National Theatre until 30 August. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.