BritishTheatre

Published on

June 28, 2014

Review: Valley Of Astonishment, Young Vic ✭✭✭✭

By

stephencollins

Valley Of Astonishment

Valley Of Astonishment at The Young Vic Valley of Astonishment

The Young Vic

27 June 2014

On the face of it, a play about why and how people remember things, how a person with synaesthesia copes with their special, astonishing ability to remember and recall and the wondrous sense of form and colour they invoke in that process, and how one consciously forgets things one has unconsciously remembered, does not sound like an inviting prospect.

But in the hands of the remarkable Peter Brook (90 next year but still overflowing with inventive genius) it becomes a truly delightful, engaging and joyous piece, chock full of important subjects and thoughts.

Now playing at The Young Vic, The Valley Of Astonishment, co-written and directed by Brook and Marie-Hélèn Estienne, is 75 minutes of delight and intrigue.

A bare stage. Four or five plain chairs. A table. Two musicians. Some instruments. A cost stand with white coats. One richly red painted back wall. A sly space for projections. Three actors. A pack of playing cards.

And from those simple, pared-back ingredients comes a thoughtful, occasionally riotously funny, bewildering and graceful theatrical experience.

The notion of the Phoenix bookends proceedings; the beast whose death throes involve a succession of sad musical notes of painful beauty and whose body goes to the flames, the final cooling embers revealing a spark from which a new life, a new Phoenix will emerge.

Toshi Tsuchitori, a Japanese master of traditional music, at the end of the piece plays the haunting single notes that represent the death of the Phoenix. The sense of loss, of inevitability, is profound, compelling. The actors leave the stage. The bare white space holds the power of what has transpired there. And the audience carries, each in his or her own way, the spark, the remembrance from which something new can emerge.

Along the way we share the painful story of Sammy, the reporter with a phenomenal memory. She is an exemplar of synaesthesia: she can recall anything she has heard or seen and she does so in a very idiosyncratic way. She walks into the world of her mind and places each item carefully, where she can remember it and find it by retracing her steps. If they are numbers, she writes them on a blackboard.

When he employer learns of her skills, he fires her, sends her to be studied and suggests she join a circus, become an entertainer, make money. It's not what she wants, but what choice does she have?

Scenes of the clinical examinations of Sammy, of the little by little understanding that she and the Doctors discover about something which she does without conscious effort, of her life in the entertainment sector, of the moment when it all becomes too much and she needs to find her way out of the valley of astonishment that is her own mind, chock full with things remembered - all of these lead to the traumatic moment when she is desperate to forget. But can she? And at what cost, or benefit, if she can?

As Sammy, Kathryn Hunter is exquisite. Palpably normal, cursed with a perfect memory, used like a monkey but ultimately able to take control of her situation, Sammy is a swirling pool of different energies, compulsions and feelings. Hunter exposes them all, effortlessly, and leaves an indelible impression of skill and joy. It's a true virtuoso performance.

Marcello Magni brings an enigmatic and intriguing aspect to his work here. He is kindly and understanding as the neuropsychologist treating/investigating Sammy; but flamboyant and in control of the crown during the card trick scenes. And Jarod McNeill is also excellent as the other of Sammy's doctors, as well as several, other characters.

The narrative is clear, in the sense that one always knows what is happening although not necessarily why. But on reflection, the memory of the performance gives it a wholeness, a life it seemed to lack occasionally while actually viewing it.

This is a real case of form and subject being fused and complementary.

Thoroughly recommended.

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ABOUT BRITISHTHEATRE

BritishTheatre.com
Opening Night Media Ltd
3rd Floor, 80 St. Martin’s Lane
Covent Garden
London WC2N 4AA

The British Theatre website has been established to celebrate the rich and diverse theatrical culture of the United Kingdom.  Our ethos revolves around encouraging and nurturing the performing arts in all its forms. The spirit of theatre is very much alive and the British Theatre website is at the forefront of delivering news and information to audiences and enthusiasts everywhere. Our team of theatre journalists and reviewers are working hard to cover productions and news.


We are constantly developing the site and are always open to receiving feedback from our readers. Join our mailing list to be kept informed of all the latest news that is of interest to you..