Medieval Morality Play: Day of Reckoning

Medieval Morality Play: Day of Reckoning

Robert Tanitch reviews Everyman at St Bartholomew the Great, London EC1

St Bartholomew the Great, a Norman church in West Smithfield, is London’s oldest church and was founded in 1129. Its vast, dark Romanesque interior has been regularly used by film and television companies.

It’s a good place to perform the most famous of all medieval morality plays.

Everyman, written in naive rhyming couplets with humour and pathos, and first performed in the early part of the 15th century, is a powerful example of Roman Catholic propaganda. The characters are allegorical.

On the day he is to die, Everyman finds he is totally unprepared to meet his Maker. There is no escape for a man “drowned in sin”, except through God’s mercy. But it is not just his fear of death; it is the fear of damnation. What are the odds on Christian salvation? Hell is real.

The play (written by an unknown author) traces his pilgrimage to redemption and heaven. He is forsaken by all his so-called friends. Nobody wants to accompany him on his final journey, except Knowledge who takes him to confession where he repents his sins and scourges himself. Only Good Deeds accompanies him to his grave.

In a secular age, religious drama requires even more than ever a religious context and religious conviction from the actors. The play is a Christian sermon and the mood needs to be set before the play even begins and after it has finished, too, with perhaps organ music, incense and a prayer.

Robert Tanitch logoI am surprised how few opportunities there have been to see this famous play in my lifetime. A major revival, on the scale of the William Poel and Ben Greet UK and US productions in the early 1900’s, is long overdue.

The present revival is produced by the Little Spaniel Theatre, founded by Cecilia Dorland, whose company has taken up residence at Saint Bart’s. The performance is staged in traverse, in the nave of the church, and lasts under an hour.

Edmund Sage-Green is a bit on the young side to be cast as Everyman. He was also hampered by injury to his knee which curtailed his movement. The start was delayed so that the production could be re-jigged to accommodate him.

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