The Valley of Astonishment

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Eighty-nine-year-old theatre maker Peter Brook doesn’t so much craft theatre as distil it from the air: the new works that unfailingly issue forth from his Parisian base every couple of years are spare, stripped-down affairs, shorn of all conceivable flab or diversion, performed with minimal casts and adorned only by delicate, Eastern-tinged instrumentation and subtle hints of Sufic mysticism.

Co-written and directed with Brook’s long-term collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne, ‘The Valley of Astonishment’ is a short, affecting piece about synaesthesia, a neurological phenomenon that causes a person’s senses to ‘overlap’ (so in the commonest form, a synesthete might perceive letters and numbers to intrinsically have their own colours).

It follows Sammy Costas, a middle-aged New York journalist, played with winningly forceful naivety by Young Vic regular Kathryn Hunter. After her editor discovers her astonishing powers of recall, he sends her to a neurological research unit where a pair scientists try – and broadly speaking, fail – to understand the remarkable way her mind works, wherein every word said to her and everything she sees leaves an apparently indelible image in her mind. Excited for her, Sammy’s editor makes her redundant and recommends her to a variety impresario, who swiftly incorporates her into his shows.

The magic of Brook’s work is that he uses only the softest of touches to get his story across: most of the first half is simply the plaintive Hunter telling us in almost childlike terms what it’s like to have Sammy’s brain; a spot of card-trick-based audience interaction in the variety club scene offers a bit of a thematically related pep; a hint of tragedy is proffered towards the end then gracefully withdrawn. There is no sense of New York, or Sammy’s biography or day-to-day life, but every sense of Sammy and her extraordinary mind – Brook has used just a couple of gestures to tell a story when another theatremaker would have used ten.

Obviously all that messing around with props and dialogue and sub-plots and sets is a lot of what makes theatre fun, and there are moments, particularly in the first half, where I longed for a bit of a red meat on these bare bones. But oh, what exquisite bones!

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