Changing Destiny provides the long-awaited re-opening of the Young Vic, renowned for its high-quality productions. The energetic two-hander is somewhat of a passion project for writer Ben Okri and director Kwame Kwei-Armah, who bonded over their mutual interest in the 4,000-year-old poem due to its ‘intrinsically dramatic’ nature.
The production depicts the tumultuous life and journey of Sinuhe, who flees Egypt following the death of the King, resulting in the loss of his spirit and bestowing him with a guilt that plagues his nightmares. Interestingly, each performer has learned both parts and a simple game played at the beginning of the show determines who will take on the central role of Sinuhe for this performance.
Joan Iyiola and Ashley Zhangazha instantly get the audience onside as they endearingly enter the space as themselves, welcome the audience and acquaint everyone with the premise of the piece. This familiarity pays off, with the audience rooting for the performers as they embark on the bumpy tale. Both Iyiola and Zhangazha are charismatic narrators and suit the storytelling style of the piece well; however, only the performer playing Sinuhe really gets a chance to shine. The other performer enjoys a fraction of the limelight as Sinuhe’s spirit, before multi-roling their way through a wide range of less developed side characters, with a handful of props for assistance.
The play’s weakness seems to lie in its narrative structure, as this is a short production which spans a long time period. Much of the piece feels overly episodic; exploring a moment just long enough to provide the key information before moving on swiftly. This allows little time for the audience to develop a connection with the events taking place or the characters affected by them. Meanwhile, other deliberately abstract scenes do not offer enough clarity which results in quite a disjointed journey. The production does settle into itself as it progresses, however, and the audience is fully engaged by the time Sinuhe’s inner conflict takes centre stage and he is inevitably forced to confront his past.
The set design is visually pleasing, taking the form of two large pyramids (one at floor level, and another suspended upside down from the ceiling) which meet centre stage at their respective points, creating an apt visual cue resembling an hourglass. The lower pyramid occasionally blocks sightlines due to the in-the-round stage format, but fortunately separates into panels which can lie flat on the floor. Meanwhile, the upper pyramid is utilised brilliantly as a projector screen to provide further imagery and context, such as the present location, throughout the piece. Strangely absent, however, is any reference to how long has passed between each scene, as this was one of the least clear elements of the text.
Changing Destiny is a well-performed tale of identity, determination and belonging which provides a quick-paced introduction to the 4,000-year-old story of Sinuhe. Unfortunately, despite tackling themes of immigration, social disorder and power, this epic tale of the ancient world struggles to resonate with a modern audience.
Changing Destiny is playing online until 21 August 2021. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic’s website.