June 24, 2014 3:23 pm

The Valley of Astonishment, Young Vic Theatre, London – review

Peter Brook brings his spare theatrical aesthetic to an examination of the human brain and mind
Kathryn Hunter in 'The Valley of Astonishment'©Simon Annand

Kathryn Hunter in 'The Valley of Astonishment'

It is what it is. This is the heart of Peter Brook’s spare, almost ostentatiously simple theatrical aesthetic. There are no bells and whistles, no technical adornments; just a few actors (in this case three), a couple of chairs, maybe a musician or two (as here), and the material. This directness does not always work. When it deals with subjects that seem exotic, such as the Sufi sage Tierno Bokar, we seem to expect more of that world to be evoked, whereas what Brook does is simply show us and allow us thereby to reconnect with our own world. When staging the likes of Beckett or Dostoevsky, he can come a cropper by clashing with viewers’ assumptions (a more minimal staging even than Beckett envisaged? Stop and marvel…).

The approach is at its most masterly in Brook’s intermittent strand of pieces about the human brain and mind, which began with L’Homme Qui… in 1993. The Valley of Astonishment is another episode in this series, centring on a trio of case studies. A woman (played by Kathryn Hunter) has a prodigious memory, encoding everything she sees and hears into mental images. When doctors examine her they speculate that this facility has something in common with synaesthesia, as experienced by Jared McNeill’s character. The latter explains how he sees – not imagines, but actually sees – letters and musical notes as possessing particular colours. And Marcello Magni plays a man who has lost his sense of proprioception or body-awareness, and must consciously guide every smallest movement by observing himself closely.

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Hunter and Magni are Brook favourites, immensely well versed in a range of techniques and most crucially in how little needs to be used at any given moment. Nor are the performances bolstered by technical fripperies; I had expected a certain amount of lighting extravagance to represent the synaesthesia, but two simple coloured washes are all that is used or needed. The point is not evocation, but simply conveying ideas. The 75-minute piece is resolved to be no more than it needs to be: we meet the subject matter on equal terms, engage with the content (or not) and leave, taking away what we choose to take or have been gifted with. It is what it is.


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