“Changing Destiny”: Young Vic

Jeremy Malies in Lambeth, London

Changing Destiny is the Young Vic’s much-trumpeted post-Covid return to live drama. The piece is Ben Okri’s listless and preachy adaptation of one of the earliest narratives we have: the 4,000-year-old Egyptian story of warrior king Sinuhe. The resources thrown at the project are dizzying: Okri is a Booker Prize winner and the minimalist underwhelming design is by none other than prominent architect Sir David Adjaye. Direction is by the Young Vic’s artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah (interviewed in an earlier edition). Changing Destiny is a self-absorbed project that hammers home to the point of tedium its contention that everybody in the theatre world – playwrights, directors, dramaturgs, academics, adaptors, translators, and teachers … right down to Johnny in the stalls – are all Hellenocentric. We are myopic to focus excessively on the brief dazzling pre-eminence of Greek culture and allow it to overshadow African and notably Egyptian literature.

 

L to r: Joan Iyiola and Ashley Zhangazha. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

 

There is a cast of two, Joan Iyiola and Ashley Zhangazha. A staple at the Young Vic, Iyiola has previously appeared there in A Season in the Congo and in Tree, which was co-written by Kwei-Armah. As Zhangazha makes his entrance from the passageway leading to the auditorium and stage, I’m the closest audience member to him. He greets me warmly, even complimenting me on my Charlton Athletic Football Club face mask. He is charismatic, and I wish I could warm to this play as I do to him. Iyiola and Zhangazha play a game of rock paper scissors to decide who will take which role. We’re invited to sit with the actors around a campfire from 4,000 years ago. This is a world of spirits. I’m ready to be transported, and yet one of the opening platitudinous lines is, “We are the initiation chamber to future generations.” It’s as though the text is a translation from Esperanto or some other profoundly unpoetic language. Surely such a realm is Okri’s strong suit; he excels with a spirit-child narrator in the Azaro trilogy of novels.

We follow the fortunes of Sinuhe the warrior, a soldier of the royal guard who has fled Egypt and is posing as a Syrian refugee in Libya where he conquers hearts and minds. There is little subtlety anywhere, and the dramatic irony is clunky. This is a long 60 minutes, and there are many disappointments to come including limp attempts at humour. We may be on the cusp of pre-history, but you can hardly fault the topicality with a background of migration in Syria and Libya. And yet I never become immersed in the world portrayed.

L to r: Joan Iyiola and Ashley Zhangazha. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

 

Adjaye’s much-anticipated set is a fabric pyramid with another inverted triangular structure atop it from which appears sand, smoke, lava, and finally hieroglyphs. Duncan McLean’s projection design to create these effects and occasional snatches of music on sistrum and flute are among the few highlights. Iyiola and Zhangazha display their wonderful mimicry skills when playing a host of peripheral characters, but nothing really coalesces. As for the love interest, I’d enter the dialogue for the theatrical equivalent of the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. “Perhaps cleaning a wall is more important than extending an empire. Especially if watched by eyes like yours.” Yuk! The plea for open borders for those who are drawn to a country and wish to nurture it should be a balm for our partisan, xenophobic, inward-looking times. And yet Okri’s sluggish exchanges never ignite, and it’s a wonder that Kwei-Armah who writes fluent idiomatic dialogue himself could not conjure some poetry out of all this.

I had expected to be carried away on a Scheherazade-style narrative and intoxicated with Okri’s linguistic invention. But I feel strangely earthbound during what is a prosaic evening. The final impression is of being harangued once again. “Other civilizations will light their celestial torches with the blaze of our mother civilization. They will suckle at the teats of our world.” Hmm! If this thesis is so significant for Okri he could have written an essay about the provenance of Egyptian drama in a learned journal. As the rubric for a play, it’s woefully inert, and the material is skewed to fit a propagandist position.