Kwame Kwei-Armah’s Changing Destiny is written by the Booker Prize winning poet and novelist Ben Okri OBE FRSL. Adapted from a 4,000-year-old Egyptian poem, Sinuhe, the story of a royal official who fled the Egyptian court because there was a plot for the pharaoh’s downfall. Joining a Bedouin tribe to the East he started a new life near Syria, and on reaching old age he returned and finished out his life in Egypt. (Main images: Joan-Iyiola-in-Changing-Destiny-c-Marc-Brenner)
This is a big return to live performances not just in the names attached Okri, and recent 2021 recipient of the RIBA Royal Gold Medal celebrated Architect Sir David Adjaye MBE but in the story being told. The Story of Sinuhe has spawned a great deal of literature which explores the themes contained in the work from many perspectives, parallels have been drawn from biblical texts: the Hebrew prophet Jonah’s frustrated flight from the orbit of God’s power is likened to Sinuhe’s. Talking to Okri backstage he stated, “it is one of the oldest stories that has been told and retold in poetry and first kinds of poetry performance for thousands of years in Egypt”. Notably an African story which some argue it is based on truth, but many agree it is a story that puts African literature amongst the greats with its anonymous author being described as the Egyptian Shakespeare and the works compared to many notable works of literature. Kwame’s Kwei-Armah’s Changing Destiny is a refreshing awakening of the nuances of stories that exist and need to be told.
Okri’s 70-minute adaption brings the themes to life in this exploration of life in exile, truth, a universal cord runs through its veins transcending time and cultural borders. The name Sinuhe means “son of the sycamore”, the sycamore tree is an ancient Egyptian Tree of Life, associated with Hathor (the Goddess of fertility and rebirth and patroness of foreign countries), who features throughout the work.
Adjaye’s set is a powerful structure centre stage of two pyramids, one inverted and on top of the other. The one at bottom unfolds to provide the stage play area; and the one on the top is illuminated by projected green lit dark images that range from the shifting sands of deserts to the distorted faces of Sinuhe’s accusers and hieroglyphics which record his journey as he travels through different lands. The actors Joan Iyiola and Ashley Zhangazha are clad in what looks like cotton twill smocks Zhangazha in grey and Iyiola in yellow the pattern could be mistaken for text, a simple unisex design which ties in with the rest of the set, (apart from Adjaye’s design) wooden boxes hold the weapons for battle, a bow and arrow included.
Both actors carry the story skilfully, matched with the boldness of the Young Vic to staging this production without an array of props and keeping to the story, firmly placed in ancient Egypt. The 70 minutes does the play justice, but this is an epic story one that would not feel out of place on the big screen: a longer staging with a bigger cast could be beyond magical.
Audiences will be intrigued by this little-known poem: why was it not taught in the curriculum not just here in the UK but everywhere. Definitely a play that is worth seeing to spark the imagination and remind us that you don’t have to take the knee to perpetuate change. Hearing the line in the play “This is Africa” serves as a declaration and reminder that Egypt is a part of Africa’s rich heritage and this is what African storytelling can look like in the future whether on stage and /or screen. The play also asks a very poignant question one which has great resonance with what we have all experienced on a global scale in the last 18 months, “where is your spirit”? There is no doubt that the human spirit has been tested more now than ever before.
Writer Ben Okri
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah
Set & Costume Design Sir David Adjaye and Adjaye Associates
Lighting Designer Jackie Shemesh
Sound Designer and Musical Director XANA
Projection Designer Duncan McLean
Composer Tunde Jegede
Movement Director Rachael Nanyonjo
Voice and Dialect Coach Hazel Holder
Fight Director Yarit Dor
Jerwood Assistant Director Khadifa Wong
Boris Karloff Foundation Trainee Assistant Director Xanthus
With Joan Iyiola and Ashley Zhangazha
Changing Destiny runs until 21 of August at the Young Vic. Book tickets here.