After a prolonged closure the Young Vic has reopened its doors with a production of Changing Destiny, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. The production is staged around Ben Okri’s script adaptation of a 4,000 year-old poem entitled Sinuhe, which tells the tale of an Egyptian Warrior King forced to suddenly flee from his home in Egypt, and take refuge in Syria. Ben Okri’s script and Kwei-Armah’s direction combine to illustrate the ways in which this tale as old as time is still pertinent to our current climate—we are reminded at the beginning and the end of the play that Egypt is “the initiation chamber for future civilisations”. Centred around issues of exile, identity, and migration, this production is at once purposeful and pressing.
David Adjaye’s set is visually striking, though simple. Two towering pyramids—one of which hangs upside down, so that the two pyramid’s peaks may touch—mark the centre of the stage, as well as the room. When the play begins the bottom pyramid is unfolded, opening up a space on the floor where the action of the play is performed. The second hanging pyramid remains in place for the duration of the play and is utilised impressively by Kwei-Armah to broadcast a variety of visual effects (grainy holograms, hieroglyphs, the sun as a fierce ball of fire). Each night Joan Iyiola and Ashley Zhangazha, the play’s two actors, engage in a game of Rock-paper-scissors to determine who will play the role of Sinuhe. Once the roles are decided and the stage is set, we are taken on a journey from Egypt to Syria, and back again. Sinuhe’s quest is one of pride, exile, psychological and physical estrangement. It is a story filled with action, violence, and triumphs. But it is equally a story burdened by a paranoiac guilt and a feeling of being dangerously out of place.
Given the influence and longevity of the play’s source material (which is said to have inspired Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ and elements of Kafka), it is somewhat surprising to be left wanting more from this adaptation. Ben Okri’s script does little to bring this exciting quest story to life. The language is often too narratorial and ponderous. Years, battles, personal achievements, trials and tribulations are all passed over with such brevity that there is scarcely a chance to form any meaningful connection with Sinuhe, or any of the smaller characters in the play. The meaningful and vital issues of exile, identity, and immigration that Okri’s script raises suffer from being dealt with too generically. An attempt to capture the spiritual bankruptcy of living as a ‘foreigner’ away from home is affecting and thought-provoking; yet, its blatant metaphorical presentation as a divided self, strips the sensitively personal issue of its nuance and profundity. With a run-time of only seventy minutes, the grand scope of Okri’s script is ultimately too ambitious.
Yet, there is something refreshing in this production. Changing Destiny is a play which reminds us, in a time of ongoing uncertainty, of the remarkable and continued importance of stories and storytelling. It might have taken 4,000 years for this telling of Sinuhe to reach us, but its message is as relevant now as it has ever been. Ben Okri and Kwame Kwei-Armah, as well as the Young Vic, deserve to be applauded for their decision to reopen their doors with a production filled with risk and ambition.
Words by Jack Rondeau.
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