Young Vic Theatre, London – until 21 August 2021
The Young Vic is configured in the round for Changing Destiny, Ben Okri’s adaptation of a 4,000 year old Egyptian myth. This constantly shifting auditorium seems to have gathered itself around the two performers as they renact The Story of Sinuhe, from the Middle Kingdom days of the Pharoahs, one of the oldest tales of all and often seen as the ancestor of storytelling itself.
The picaresque events follow royal guard Sinuhe, who feels Egypt following the assassination of Ahmenemhet I and becomes a king in the Middle East, before an eventual return to his homeland. It deals with resentment of outsiders, prowess in battle and the pain of being separated from the place where you belong, and from your spirit. Sinuhe’s spirit cannot cross the border from Egypt so, because he takes upon himself the guilt of failing to prevent the Pharoah’s murder, he chooses exile, internal and external.
Kwame Kwei-Amah stages this piece on a striking set designed by architect Sir David Adjaye. A pyramid, centre stage, is dwarfed by its inverted twin, suspended above it. Projections swirl over its surface, of shimmering deserts, starry skies and, sometimes, accusatory faces spreading rumours. It is an impressively conceptual and ambitious set, although with the occasional hint of an Imax demonstration film.
The sharp pyramid’s point helps to focus the action which is necessary, because the events of Sinuhe can be a little difficult to follow. This is not the fault of the cast, Joan Iyiola and Ashley Zhangazha who, at the start, play rock/scissors/stone to determined who plays Sinuhe, and who plays his spirit and all the other characters.
They are full of energy, charming performers who fill the stage heroically as they struggle across the parched desert, muck out the stables of a Syrian monarch, fight the strongest man in the kingdom in single combat, marry the princess (Sinuhe is played by Iyiola and the princess by Zhangazha at this point, which throws a whole extra level of gender confusion in the story). They deliver an entertaining evening, appreciated by an audience who are only too happy to be able to close their eyes, as invited by Iyiola, and imagine themselves beside a campfire in the desert in 2000BC.
However, it is never entirely clear why this story has been chosen for the stage, and why now. Okri is convinced it has significant contemporary resonances, but these remain somewhat general. The title he has chosen for his version emphasises the theme of existential choice and the ability of people to determine their own destiny, which Sinuhe wrestles with.
The treatment of outsiders in a foreign land is also pointed up. But Sinuhe’s motivations and the wider significance of the dream-like events that form his story are opaque. We feel far away from the Ancient Egyptian world view and, as a result, the play lacks urgency. At a time of social crisis, audiences are returning to the theatre more alive than ever to its power and significance. The tale may foreshadow many themes of later literature, but this production does not make a strong enough case for us to turn our attention to this story at this time.