Akhenaten and Nefertiti have intrigued me for the past 12 years. In the 1970s my brother, a screenwriter and author of Broadway musicals, wrote a romantic musical based on the pair, who in his opinion introduced a Camelot-style era to ancient Egypt. The musical was mounted for Broadway but closed on the road. After his death in 1988 of AIDS, I began a series of rewrites to update and revise the musical.
I saw immediately that it was based on some outdated ideas of who these people were and what they attempted to do. Nevertheless, they remained mesmerizing. I wanted to visit the place where they built a new capital along the Nile, a city now called Amarna.
Getting there meant a long bus journey and travel with heavily armed security, but once I arrived, the modern world disappeared. Little remains but desert and foundations of temples and homes, yet I could imagine I was there when they made this patch of land the capital of the most important country on Earth. Images filled me with new ideas and enthusiasm. As a result I am completing yet another revision of the play, this one based on the latest thinking of scholars.
We had to confront hordes of tourists at most of the sites, including Luxor, Karnak, and the Valley of the Kings. Unfortunately, the paths Nefertiti, Akhenaten, and Tut walked were badly trampled. There were few opportunities to escape the crowds and reflect on the majesty and awe of the monuments and art. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo houses a wondrous collection of Amarna art and sculpture, including hypnotic images such as the face of Akhenaten that appears on the cover of National Geographic. But even there chatter and bustle so often spoiled the atmosphere.
I donned a skimpy loincloth and pretended I was an ancient Nile ferryman for one of the photo-art illustrations in the text. Art director Chris Sloan had cast a group of people to re-create scenes from the lives of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Hoping to throw myself into my research, I asked if I could be an extra in one of the crowd scenes. Chris perversely agreed.
When it came time to hand out the wigs and costumes, I found myself with the last available outfitsomething slightly bigger than a thong. But with a wig and makeup and a photographer with a long lens, I was unidentifiable. And for a couple of hours I was transported back to the Nile in 1350 B.C., rowing rich folks to the quay at Amarna. It let me reflect on what life for the lower classes might have been like back then. And I got to chat with some great multicultural fellow actors in London.