There were times, at Akhnaten, when I wondered what everybody else in the audience made of a man in fake boobs and jodhpurs, repeatedly shouting “Haaaaa!” while a dozen jugglers threw balls around him, but hopefully they already knew enough of the story to follow what was going on. That strangest of incidents in the mists of history, an Egyptian pharoah suddenly proclaiming there was only one God, smashing the old order and writing a hymn to the Sun.
There were wonderful moments — the priests clad like doctors, huddled in the shadows around the mummified Amenhotep III as they prepare him for his funeral, lights shining from their heads; Queen Tye in permanent shock, her hands red with blood from holding Amenhotep’s heart, staring in mute horror at the sky as if hoping to catch a glimpse at his departing soul; the constant presence of the Scribe, creator and curator of what little we know, his body often held in a rictus of despair. And a libretto drawn, like Steve Reich’s Different Trains, from fragments of found material — the Hymn to the Aten and a letter from a troubled general, asking for military assistance, from which an entire reign has somehow been extrapolated.
My mind wandered, as I suspect it was supposed to, to other things. As I watched Akhnaten’s six daughters, their matted hair entangled like rat-tails, dragged away in slow motion, I wondered if Philip Glass would ever consider a sequel about Ankhesanamun, Akhnaten’s daughter, wife and daughter-in-law, married to the boy pharoah Tutankhamun, and author of the melancholy letter sent to the Hittites: “My husband is dead and I have no son…. I am afraid.” As Akhnaten and Nefertiti advance slowly across the stage towards each other to share a kiss, their long crimson silk trains entwine, recalling Chie Shinohara’s Red River, a story which does indeed include the story of Ankhesanamun’s letter arriving in Anatolia, and the failed mission to send her a prince as a husband.
The animal-headed gods on the rooftop transform into a class of idle students, misbehaving while a tweeded academic bumbles his way through a tourist guide to a desert ruin where there is almost nothing to see, and offers handy tips for the ferry. One student tries, and fails to juggle with balls of paper, a faint mockery of the constant juggling throughout that has been symbolic of the rise and fall of the sun disc. Akhnaten himself is redressed, as if for his coronation, but now he is a figure in a museum… and then he comes to life once more, wordlessly comiserating with the ghosts of Nefertiti and Tye at the ruin of their world, as a river of time washes past them.
Akhnaten is playing at the Coliseum in London until 7th March.
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