Amidst the increasing number of shows forced to suspend due to isolation rules, the return of the Young Vic theatre to in-person live performances after 16-months of darkness is welcome news. Aside from a fairly closed birthday celebration concert event late last year which was lived streamed to followers, the Young Vic is the latest major venue to announce a long season of work that includes Cush Jumbo’s postponed Hamlet in September and culminates with the premiere of a new James Graham play in December. But its opening salvo is another premiere, a story of identity politics, spiritual homelands and what it means to belong, Ben Okri’s 70-minute two-hander Changing Destiny.
Performed in the round, there is a complex simplicity to this narrated tale that transports its audience to Ancient Egypt, Libya and Syria largely through the power of the spoken word, an approach that speaks to the very essence of theatre as strangers gather together to hear and share stories. Drawing on oral storytelling traditions, the Young Vic’s production is a reminder of the venue’s most fundamental purpose, a back to basics (well almost) approach that unites narrated sections, that help the characters to travel, with dramatised conversations between the warrior Sinhue and a rich cast of Pharaohs, farmers and spirits he meets along the way.
Based on a 4000-year old poem, Okri’s play is essentially a journey narrative, one that takes the protagonist on both a physical, international journey and one of spiritual awakening and identity. These two elements operate largely in parallel throughout the play, and while he seeks to change his destiny, the further Sinhue goes, the stronger the desire to be at home. Despite years exiled in the employ of a rival power, he feels like an alien in his adoptive homeland. This combined physical and spiritual narrative creates an epic sweep that resonates beyond the central character, giving Sinhue an everyman or allegorical symbolism.
To achieve this, the plot develops in fairly straightforward, almost linear fashion, taking Sinhue through a series of chronological encounters that mark his rise and fall. Events are described in sketched form, denuded of unnecessary adjectives or elaborate conversational styles, and Sinhue tends to recount his experiences in the clean, factual statements of a soldier prioritising the sequence of events over trying to win approval – whether he was right or wrong, ambitious, vain or the victim of circumstance is not something the character attempts to influence in this biographical retelling.
But that is not to suggest that Changing Destiny is a dry or overly solemn experience, and Okri has a cinematic eye, punctuating his adaptation with plenty of drama that creates flow and pace while building a sense of jeopardy as Sinhue has more to lose. Wasting no time on a preamble, Okri plunges the audience into an Egyptian conspiracy, a plan to assassinate a lumbering Pharaoh with his leading warrior Sinhue at its heart. This Caesar-like subterfuge carried out by a small cabal and followed rapidly by Sinhue’s escape beyond the borders of Egypt, is a claustrophobic and high-stakes opener which, like a James Bond pre-credit sequence, is used by Orkri to establish a context for what’s to come.
Similarly, across the remaining story there are feats of endurance when Sinhue sinks into ignominy as an anonymous farmhand, undertakes a lone journey across the blazing desert, demonstrates a fighting prowess that wins the notice of the Syrian King, rapidly rises through the Court, wins decisive battles with enemy nations, conceals a hidden identity as Sinhue obscures his origins and a finale confrontation with Egypt that brings the show full circle. And while all of this is lifted from the ancient poem, Okri employs them as narrative devices like an action movie to create moments of ebb and flow while balancing the human development of relationships, introspection and self-acceptance that flesh out this individual journey.
Thematically, Changing Destiny has some contemporary points to make about the nature of identity and, crucially, the benefits of immigration to national growth and development. More than once, Sinhue is welcomed as an outsider in Syria, bringing valuable new knowledge and learning to the kingdom based on his reputation and experiences at the Egyptian Court – the association and subtle comment on the narrowness of current policy is noteworthy – and that his stratospheric rise to power is accompanied by grumbling from a minority among the native nobility is no impediment to Sinhue’s status or popularity.
But Okri is especially interested in how Sinhue’s own concept of identity and thereby his destiny is unaffected by the generosity and acceptance of his new homeland. The separation of Sinhue from his spirit occurs as he flees Egypt for what he believes will be the last time, symbolically and pertinently leaving a piece of himself behind. That this essentially haunts the character through the play is important in understanding the half-life his series of impressive but downplayed deeds represents. That Sinhue can perform but fails to invest in his successes is a core trait having left the better part of himself behind in Egypt.
So throughout the play, Sinhue is torn between the nation that recognises and accepts his leadership, promotes and nurtures his talent, welcoming his skills and knowledge with open arms, and the country of his birth to which his soul belongs. With Sinhue frequently visited by the specter of Egypt, Okri is exploring concepts of home and belonging – individuals can live, even thrive in other environments but a part of them will always yearn for a spiritual if not a physical birth place. And through this Okri’s play joins several others in exploring the complexities of Black British identity and its roots in African and Caribbean cultures.
While the simplicity of Okri’s approach conceals quite intricate dramatic and thematic structures, director Kwame Kwei-Armah takes a similar approach to staging the production, offering two conjoined pyramids, one upturned and suspended from the ceiling, designed by superstar architect Sir David Adjaye that dominate the centre of the room, their pointed tips meeting perfectly. These canvas and wood pyramids, neatly referencing Sinhue’s Egyptian homeland in shape and texture, dominate the centrestage area, two simple three-dimensional constructs that the actors move around, although this occasionally obscures the action in the early part of the show.
But there is method here and as Sinhue exiles himself, there is a metaphorical and physical unfolding of the set, the four sides of the bottom pyramid lowered and splayed into its original net form which may be distantly familiar from primary school maths classes. This creates a much larger and clear performance space allowing the actors to move freely around the stage in constructing their tale while using the corner points of the now dismantled pyramid as places of transition either between places or characters.
The textures and pale tones used to construct this lower pyramid allow lighting designer Jackie Shemesh to project varying colour onto its raised sides, or at crucial moments in the story, to create silhouette effects for Sinhue’s ‘shadow fight’ to defeat a rival. Later in the play, as Sinhue’s yearning for Egypt increases, Kwei-Armah partially reconstructs some or all of the pyramid to create changes of pace and tone, so what could have been a cumbersome set decision is used to effectively and fairly seamlessly represent the layers of meaning in Sinhue’s biography while underscoring the minimalist approach to conjuring this story.
The upper pyramid is where greater complexity is applied and some magical production values aid the audience’s immersion in Changing Destiny. Made from black canvas, this structure acts as a four-sided screen onto which images, animation and maps are projected, visible to all sides of the auditorium. Created by Duncan McLean, the video design is both scenery and an alternative expositional device using pre-recorded footage and illustration to create context for Sinhue’s actions, particularly the conspiratorial drivers in Ancient Egypt, and signifying movement between the three civilisations.
Employing tonal colours that match Adjaye’s canvas set design, McLean’s graphics are created largely in white and brown-beige, given a classical styling that nods to hieroglyphs, mosaics and papyrus drawings. Sand is the basis for the animated sections, as clouds of it roll across the screens, eventually coalescing and forming more solidly recognisable shapes including the burning desert sun, representations of the local terrain and, sometimes, into the people of Egypt – voiced Rakie Ayola, Ebe Bamgboye, Doña Croll and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Conspiratorial whispers against their leader and encouragement to depose him later evolve into spiritual voices calling Sinhue home, simultaneously embodying the colleagues he once knew as well as the guilt he carries with him through the years.
As the production unfolds, Shemesh’s lighting design becomes the primary tool for creating tone, bringing the different elements of set, video and storytelling together to capture the various national and personal experiences that mark Sinhue’s life. From the dramatic almost bombastic shading of the fight sequences to the soft tones of a nascent romance, oppressive journeys across the ferociously-heated desert to the almost fluorescently-coloured pathways Shemesh creates around the room, the visual impact of Changing Destiny grows in stature as the production unfolds.
Joan Iyiola and Ashley Zhangazha known only as ‘Character’ create a welcoming atmosphere, interacting with the audience as themselves at the start of the show before deciding which roles they will play. In this performance, Iyiola is Sinhue capturing the early fear that follows the Pharaoh’s assassination and, ever-confident of his warrior skills, slowly returning to a position of influence, as though by accident. Iyiola suggests the lingering guilt and feeling of being undeserving that shape Sinhue’s approach while emphasising not only the fearful desire to see Egypt once more but also a quiet certainty that shapes his path to power.
Zhangazha plays everyone else, darting between peasant farmers and warrior friends, Sinhue’s own manifested and detached spirit as well as various kings, enemies and rivals all of which are largely distinct and clearly defined without caricature. It is an impressive feat of performance adding much to the creation of scene and place with Zhangazha carrying an equal performance burden in helping the audience to visualise the changing concepts of time and social structures across the piece.
Under Kwei-Armah’s Artistic Direction, the Young Vic has been primarily interested in identity and storytelling, making Changing Destiny an appropriate and consistent opener to a new season of work. Okri’s play takes the simplest process of recitation and creates a contemporary version of Sinhue’s tale brought to life with some judiciously applied theatre techniques that enhance the effect Okri’s words create. Dressed up or down, the simple act of gathering together to be told a story is the very basis of theatre and with Changing Destiny, the Young Vic makes a welcome return to the spotlight.
Changing Destiny is at the Young Vic until 21 August with tickets from £10. Streaming options will also be available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog