As I enter the Main House Theatre at the Young Vic, there is a strange sense of ‘community’ that starts building up inside me. Perhaps it’s the in-the-round seating that is oddly reminiscent of being gathered around a campfire or simply, the lively atmosphere full of hushed conversations and exchanges as we return to full capacity audiences in the theatres. Tonight, The Young Vic mounts a new age retelling of a 4000-year-old poem from ancient Egyptian literature, based on the adventures of warrior king Sinuhe. Written by Ben Okri and directed by Young Vic’s artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, Changing Destiny is a wonderfully crafted ode to resilience, identity and belonging that not only breathes fresh life into the literature that inspired it, but also raises larger questions around the debate of immigration and discrimination in today’s age.
Okri’s text follows Sinuhe’s journey in the aftermath of the death of the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenemhat I. Fearing for his life over his inaction to save the Pharaoh, Sinuhe decides to flee Egypt and travel across the desert to find a new home. His subsequent capture as a prisoner of war by the foreign Kingdom of Retenue set the ground for the remaining story, as Sinuhe must overcome invisible enemies, strange occurrences, tormenting memories and crippling self-doubt to regain his status and find peace within. Okri’s text condenses a vast multitude of characters, plots and happenings in a brief 70-minute running length that is translated into dynamic tableaux of music, movement and action by Kwei-Armah’s direction.
All of the epic’s characters are played by two performers – Joan Iyiola and Ashley Zhangazha – who share the role of Sinuhe, with a game played on stage at the start of each performance to decide who plays what. This staging choice is particularly reminiscent of ancient storytelling techniques wherein storytellers played different characters and sets a tone of playfulness that the audience carries into the night. Iyiola and Zhangazha deliver lively performances as they effortlessly shift between accents, gaits and emotions to bring different characters alive. Movement Director Rachael Nanyonjo’s work deserves special mention as the performers’ swift movement across different spaces on the stage are crucial to creating shifts in location and time of the story. Sound Designer and Musical Director XANA’s choice to integrate pre-recorded music with live loop pedals succeeds in creating hauntingly ‘felt’ soundscapes that remind us that what we’re witnessing is not a new story, but the same struggles and questions that have been played back century after century. Sir David Adjaye’s set design allows us to appreciate in the in-the-round playing of story, as the performers leverage its openness and freedom to create distinct moments across different directions. The presence of the two pyramid set structures, one at the bottom which the performers have access to, and the other at top which feature Duncan McLean’s sharply made video design as an additional storytelling medium, is eye-catching but can do a lot more to elevate the performers’ actions. Jackie Shemesh’s light design carries a lot of emotion and weight, allowing us to situate each scene’s mood, but is at the risk of developing a language of its own. It’s tight-knit reliance of the performers’ actions to guide it allow for the creation of some truly magical moments, where a mere snap of the fingers completely changes what we’re seeing. Kwei-Armah’s focus on making the performers, and the story, more accessible to audiences is evident through the minimal use of extravagant production elements and a sustained attempt to open up the text’s vastly shifting landscapes through simple, precise staging choices.
To summarize, Changing Destiny is an eye-catching rendition of a classic epic reimagined by Ben Okri. The Young Vic’s skilful integration of modern-day techniques and ancient storytelling methods makes this show a delightful watch.
You can watch Changing Destiny at the Young Vic Theatre till 21st August 2021. Learn more and book your tickets at https://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/changing-destiny
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 30th July 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★