When the world began to close 17 months ago, I had a sense of foresight about what would affect the life of the spirit, and I wrote a sincere feeling appeal in this paper encourage the world not to forget the arts. I have maintained that art at its best reveals to us the fullness of what it means to be human.
I was afraid at the time that the lights would go out all over the world and all forms of culture would fall under the onslaught of the pandemic. But it soon became apparent that we could not live without art and culture. It was just that art had to find new ways to reach us, new ways of existing and artists had to find new ways of making art. For many artists, their homes have become their studios. Zoom replaces travel, and virtuality replaces intimacy.
But there is something unmatched in live theater. Nothing comes very close to the mysterious vitality of live actors and an audience that beats with anticipation and is immersed in the entanglements of a story. And so this weekend something remarkable will happen. After a year and a half of not practicing their art in person, a group of actors at the Young Vic will perform my new play, Fate changes. It takes place in ancient Egypt and is based on a nearly 4,000-year-old poem called “The Tale of Sinuhe”.
The play began its life before closing, but its writing and the intricacies of the production took place. Most of the process took place on Zoom. Staff had to work from home and the theater struggled to get money. A remarkable early obstacle was the shortage of black male actors, which was unprecedentedly in great demand. Luckily we found the excellent Ashley Zhangazha, played by Ike Turner Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. He plays alongside the wonderful Joan Iyiola, a veteran of the Young Vic.
The play began in the Greek tradition as a classical play in three acts, and was then compressed into a two-handed hand. We wanted this play, based on one of the most popular poems in the ancient world, to be as close as possible to the oldest form of storytelling on stage, where the play consists as much of the audience’s imagination as of the suggestive actions of the actors. We wanted an old theater form, the campfire theater, along with the most modern technological innovations.
But making a play during lockdown was quite a challenge. And it took steel from the intrepid artistic director of the Young Vic, Kwame Kwei-Armah, to manage all the contingencies and devise the most Covid-free environment for the actors to rehearse and the theater to function. Exercising required a rigorous daily health check. The practice area is completely closed off.
The pressure on the actors was tremendous. There are only two of them, one man, the other woman, playing 100 roles. They rotate the role of the central role of Sinuhe. This makes it a gender-transcendent act. To fully experience the play, you have to see it twice, to see what happens when Sinuhe is a man and then a woman.
I was first interested in “The Tale of Sinuhe” as part of my enduring curiosity about ancient Egyptian civilization and its relationship to Africa. It seems that people have managed to separate Egypt spiritually from the rest of the continent. Perhaps now is the time for Egypt to be dealt with as part of the broken history of the continent.
But my interest in ancient Egypt is also mythical and spiritual. Sinuhe’s poem is a literary text, but also belongs to the mural tradition of Egyptian art. The scribe who copied it had it painted in his grave. It is a visual poem, a performance to the point of death and immortality.
A casual encounter with Kwei-Armah, who is himself an avid playwright, during an event celebrated by Nelson Mandela through his prison letters, gave the second impetus for writing the play. We were amazed at our mutual fascination for this now little known Egyptian poem.
After the final draft is accepted, Kwame decides early on that he wants to Fate changes to be the first play the Young Vic plays when it comes out of lockdown, a play that matches the strangeness of coming out of the long period of isolation, with the magic and strangeness of an ancient world. But it was just as difficult to get out of the lockdown as to enter it. The production was canceled and postponed and learned a lesson in bringing theater back to historical times.
From the beginning, however, we were not interested in the theatricalization of the poem, but in finding an authentic political and ritual drama out of it. No play can be written about the old days that is not a play today. We can only understand the past through the present. This is the only portal we have. Conversely, we can only understand the present through the past.
The Sinuhe poem reveals profound political tensions in ancient Egypt. This is an indirect version of the murder of Pharaoh Amenemhat I; and of Sinuhe, involved in the conspiracy, who had to flee to foreign lands. In the poem are archetypes that have plagued the human imagination.
Within it become concerns about home and exile, with identity, the unknowability of human motives, and those eternal issues of freedom. The core of the poem is the problem of power, what to do if an autocratic regime destroys society. It’s hard to believe that the pyramid makers had their fingers on the pulse of things we would consume 4,000 years later.
Ancient Egypt was marginalized in the literature story. That should change. The tendency in the west was to start with the Greeks as if nothing much had been written before. But the writings of Herodotus and Plutarch testify to the Egyptian roots of Greek culture, to the idea that the Greeks got some of their gods out of Egypt. There is even a fruitful tradition that claims that the ancient Egyptian mysteries were the real ancestors of Greek theater.
There are hints in the Greek myths of imports from other cultures. Dionysus has an Asian tint. Many cultures inform the pantheon of Greek gods. To overcome the persistent Eurocentric tendencies, we need to go back to the old people to see how myths and mysteries spread from one center to another. This should cure us of the idea that the roots of Western civilization come from only one place.
The migration of gods and cults and peoples is bound up in the story of civilization itself. For this reason, The Tale of Sinuhe should bring us cultural humility and a sense of wonder. It should be widely taught in schools and just as well known as Homer Odyssey or The Arabian Nights.
Write Fate changes, I wanted to bathe the audience in this eternal stream. I wanted to redirect some of the waters in these divisive times. Whether it’s the cruel treatment of migrants at US borders, or the European sea alive with the ghosts of migrants trying to persuade it, or the new immigration bill recently published by the British government, this old Egyptian poem, which is now a game, suggests that the issue of immigration requires a new way of looking at the human story and the human spirit. Not one who demonizes out of fear, but someone whose understanding comes from the long perspective about the mystery of human property.
Until 21 August, youngvic.org
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