The Young Vic is where I first got the theatre bug in my teens: I love its fabric, ethos and capacity for reinvention. So I’m properly sad that its reopening show is a disappointing, 60-minute slice of storytelling.
Changing Destiny takes a 4000-year-old Egyptian poem, the Story of Sinuhe, about a guilt-ridden soldier’s flight across Africa, and turns its themes of power, exile and identity into something pleasantly diverting but ultimately banal.
There are hefty names attached. Booker prize-winner Ben Okri’s script is simultaneously pretentious and simplistic. Starchitect David Adjaye contributes an arresting set – a big, inverted canvas pyramid balanced on the point of another, onto which snarling faces and images of fire are projected – but also horrible smocks for the performers. Young Vic artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s production is playful, but lacking depth and gravitas.
The two performers enter, chat to the audience, and play a game of rock-paper-scissors to determine which will play the lead and which the other parts. Joan Iyiola (who ‘won’ on press night) and Ashley Zhangazha are fine young actors and they are charming here, though prone to the sing-song diction and gestural acting of children’s theatre. The whole thing has the air of a drama school exercise knocked together in a week, right down to the rummage bins of props and the blend of modern London and ‘foreign’ accents.
After the Pharaoh he serves is murdered, the blameless but fearful Sinuhe flees to find servitude in Libya, then is captured and taken to Syria. There he rises from cleaning the palace to military rank, marries a prince and is named the king’s successor, before realising he really, really misses Egypt and risks death to return. The moral of this fable? There’s no place like home.
Sinuhe clearly inspired countless stories, from Joseph and David in the Bible to Hamlet and Joseph K, but here he’s a flat figure with no interior life. The casual mention of his gay marriage and the linking of his odyssey to the contemporary refugee crisis need to be unpacked but there isn’t the time or the will to do so. Okri is surely right that ancient Egypt’s rich culture has been consciously detached from its African context: but he needs to show us, not tell us.
I do get it. Kwei-Armah wanted to reopen by taking theatre back to its essence, a tale told round a campfire, but with contemporary relevance and big-name talent attached. The resulting show is agreeable and sporadically thought-provoking (it led me down a Google rabbit hole on homosexuality in ancient Egypt) but too light and skimpy. And for a theatre like the Young Vic, at a crunch time like this, that simply isn’t good enough.
Young Vic, SE1, to Aug 21. youngvic.org