Saturday 21st June 2014, matinée
Peter Brook never tires of exploring new territory, and in the ‘Valley of Astonishment’, currently at the Young Vic, he continues a journey he began in the early nineties, when he adapted Oliver Sachs’ popular book ‘The Man who mistook his wife for a hat’. Realising that the human mind is as full of wonders as the external world, Brook, along with his long-term collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne, takes us on a journey through some very unusual human beings and attempts to convey how uniquely they see the world. The key character is Sammy Costas, a fictional memorist (based on an amalgam of real people) who not only has an extraordinary memory, but also synaesthesia, a merging of the senses which results in ‘hearing’ colour and shapes. She sees a seven as a man with a moustache, and an eight as a fat lady, a memorist’s trick which is entirely involuntary. We watch her coming to terms with her unusual abilities before she is finally able to take control of her life, and the play asks the question ‘if you have an extraordinary talent how should you allow it to shape your life’. In Sammy’s case, becoming part of a ‘freak show’ nearly destroys her and her former life as a journalist who doesn’t need a notebook seems blissful by comparison. By contrast, we also meet a painter struggling to express himself until he learns to embrace the colours and shapes that music evokes in his mind’s eye.
As we expect from Brook, a director who takes seriously the assertion that ‘less is more’, the action plays out on a minimal stage with a cast of three and some imaginative lighting by Philippe Vialatte. Kathryn Hunter plays Sammy. Peter Brook has mentioned in interviews that her performance is so engaging that audience members tend to assume she must be playing a real character. Sure enough when we got home, we were confidently googling this non-existent person. She perfectly balances a sense of genuine eccentricity with a down to earth frankness which allows us effortlessly into her world. To her, her talent is nothing special, she cannot imagine being any other way, and she is a reluctant ‘star’. There is sadness in her journey through near burn-out when she discovers that no-one can teach her how to ‘forget’ the random objects generated by her audiences which clutter up her mind, but also satisfaction in seeing her recover her integrity by returning to a life of obscurity.
Marcello Magni doubles up as Doctor, patient and performer in a series of remarkable vignettes. He plays a character who has lost his ‘proprioception’, the innate sense of the body’s position which allows us to move unconsciously. Facing permanent paralysis, he realises that he can train himself to move by controlling his body with his eyes. We weren’t surprised to learn that Magni was a founder member of the theatre company ‘Complicite’, so well known for the physicality of their work. He has a compelling stage presence which is completely convincing and enthralling to watch. He also has a spectacular turn as a one-handed magician which he pulls off with easy charm. We were glad to see Jared McNeill again after his stand-out performance in The Suit two years ago. His brief turn as the synaesthetic painter is beautifully done as he performs an ‘invisible’ painting for us with great precision and dexterity. As the Doctor’s assistant, he counterpoints the more outlandish action with a quiet, sympathetic presence. The cast are ably supported musically by Raphael Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori.
It’s interesting to note that there are no writing credits for the play, and it feels like a devised production. The plotting is hardly tight, and at times, it can feel as though the subject matter has overwhelmed any sense of structure. However the action is never boring, and every segment brings some new insight into the human condition, directed and performed with a conviction that makes it hard to ignore. Even the magic act, which seemed a little out of place in the story, was a pleasure to watch, and we left wanting more.