Skip to main content

The Valley of Astonishment - Young Vic

A man who lives through consciousness remains soft. A man who lives through conscience, remains hard.

Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s new play, a quiet and meditative piece about the workings of the mind and synaesthesia [one sense stimulated by another, or the senses experienced together rather than separately] is all about consciousness- as opposed to its sinful guilty opposite, conscience- i.e that there is a right way to live.


Loosely based on ‘The Mind of a Mnemomist’ by Alexander Luria, The Valley of Astonishment follows the adventures of journalist Sammy Costas [Kathryn Hunter] who is fired from her job because of her phenomenal memory. Turning to cognitive scientists for help before a brief flirtatious spell as a music hall performer, she returns to the scientists proclaiming she wishes to ‘give myself to science’ and meet other like minded people. Along the way we meet other synaesthetes- a man who paints because when he hears music he sees colour [Jared McNeill] and a man who has lost all proprioception and can only control his limbs with his eyes [Marcello Magni]. All against the backdrop of some wonderfully eloquent music played by Raphael Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori.

There has been talk, both with friends and in the reviews, about whether this is theatre. There was even, in one review, a suggestion that Sammy was defined by her talent and not by her gender [as if, ultimately, gender and sexual orientation are the only things that can define us, rather than, say, consciousness]. But being defined by her talent, or in this case, a particular consciousness and way of looking at the world, is the point here, as Sammy has to navigate a potentially cruel world whilst remaining true to her unique individuality.

And it is theatre. Everyone can see that Sammy goes on a self-discovering journey filled with obstacles, and finally reaches her own brave conclusion at the end of the play. Theatre can’t and shouldn’t always be about guts, blood, gore, broken hearts, Somali pirates and one night stands and the like. It has to do more and audiences should be demanding more- more sophisticated story telling with values that challenge us and challenge us to look at how we, as individuals and in our individual lives, respond to the world- plays that can transcend themselves- and The Valley of Astonishment certainly does this.  And manages to relate to the human condition, touching upon themes of despair, alienation, loneliness, exploitation and the joys and curses of being different. And the beauty through out is Sammy’s innocence- not a childish innocence- but the innocence of one who knows how to respond to the world in a playful manner and has renounced fighting.

There is a wonderful moment that calls for audience participation- the audience, taking on the role of audience members in a music hall performance, is invited to take part in a magic card game. It’s relevant because it is a chance for the audience to test their own powers of consciousness, receptivity, observational and listening skills. It isn’t actually a trick. And all in the name of play. And relates directly to the opening lines of this review. It is also the meeting point of Peter Brook’s Holy and Rough Theatre.

Conversing with a friend immediately post show, it was pointed out to me by him that all the actors and especially Kathryn Hunter, find and use the centre point of the Young Vic’s auditorium. I had never thought of that before but in fact, the staging and use of space seems specifically located around that point and helps the audience, along with the minimalist staging, to focus on the actors and what is being said or communicated, shown to us or not shown.

The last word of this play is not a word, but a breath and a note played by Toshi Tsuchitori. Sammy, at the conclusion, is now traveling on a new journey again and there can be no conclusion- only the flute can give a sense of things to come.

Peter Brook recently said ‘My only aim in the theatre is that people leave more confident with life than when they came in’. Those that know how to look, or look deep enough, or are simply just open to the messages in this play, will realize that he is coming near to something of that aim.

Direction Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne 
Light Philippe Vialatte 

With
Kathryn Hunter 
Marcello Magni 
Jared McNeill
Raphaël Chambouvet
Toshi Tsuchitori

Performances [until 12 July]
Monday - Saturday (except 23 June): 7:30pm
Wednesday & Saturday matinees: 2:30pm

Tickets: £10, £19.50, £25, £35

Box Office: 020 7922 2922

Website: www.youngvic.org



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Walking the Tightrope- Theatre Delicatessen

Site-specific set? Perhaps. In the old Guardian offices in Farringdon, Offstage Theatre and Theatre Uncut curate a cycle of 12 short plays exploring the tension[s] between art and politics, reactions to the budget cuts to the arts in the UK and debate freedom of expression controversies. Corruption, class divides, perception, blood money, gesture politics and culpability, it’s all there and recent topical events are given stage time, from The Tricycle’s controversial decision to withdraw their support for the UK Jewish Film Festival to the Barbican’s cancelled Exhibit B. The plays are entertaining- Sun City by April De Angelis, Re: Exhibit by Gbolahan Obisesan, Old Newland by Julie Pascal, Tickets are on Sale Now by Caryl Churchill and Exhibit A, by Neil LaBute, all deserve special mention for looking beyond the parameters of funding and freedom of expression in the UK arts- by which of course, I mean a theatrical London still surfing the very last trickling waves of Colonialism and it…

A Man of Good Hope: review

“The ability to have someone tell your story is so important. It says you know I was here.” Maya Angelou It’s a piece of musical theatre about having hope. It’s an urgent work which speaks of age old global phenomenons such as migration and life as a persecuted refugee. The term refugee has been part of the western world’s history since the persecution of protestants in France in 1540, the term migrant is biblical. The book upon which the show is based, an account of the life of Somali Asad Abdullahi who witnessed the murder of his mother when he was eight years old in Mogadishu during the civil war and who then fled across Africa as a boy and young man as a consequence, is in some ways so traumatic a read that the stage work has to offer more positivity than the title infers. 
In the Isango Ensemble and director Mark Dornford-May, with a little help from Stephen Daldry, the book, by Jonny Steinberg, has found the perfect stage partners. One feels that no other company could do this wor…

Safe House- art meets theatre at the Young Vic with Jeremy Herbert and Gabriella Sonabend

It starts with a journey down a narrow corridor, fist clenching wooden key.
‘Follow the yellow line’ the polite Usher says and I do, around the corner and into a foyer area, where I am met with a gust of wind from a machine that Jeremy Herbert, the designer, has created himself. As my hair blows and my cheeks and eyes are battered as if I am standing on top of a mountain, I am tempted to remain here, to continue to feel the gusts in my face and listen to the sound the wind makes. I don’t want anything else and I can’t hear anything else, only aware of a need to immerse myself in it, to let myself go in the rapid flashing lights that emanate from its surface. I’m one who craves aloneness and enjoys it all too well, but I am afraid that someone will come and disturb this brief relationship myself and the wind machine have struck up, or that my mind will interfere, the buzz of thoughts getting the better of me.. so I move on around the room, after all, there are four more ‘safes’, all a s…