I rarely know much about a production before I see it and The Valley of Astonishment, devised by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, was no exception. I vaguely knew it was about synesthesia, the phenomenon of one sensory experience leading to automatic, involuntary experiences in other senses (numbers having colours, sounds having shapes, that kind of thing). If I had read the summary at the Young Vic website, I would have known The Valley of Astonishment is “a journey into the wonders of the human brain, inspired by years of neurological research, true stories and Farid Attar’s epic mystical poem The Conference of the Birds.”
And so it is. We meet Sammy Costas, played by Kathryn Hunter, a synesthete with remarkable memory who starts to use her skills in performing. Her experiences become the spine of the production. Along the way, we meet a number of other characters, most notably a man who has lost the sense of proprioception (the sense that allows us to know where our body parts are and how much effort is required in order to move them). He is paralysed, not because of nerve damage, but because he doesn’t know where his limbs are unless he looks at them.
It’s all hugely engaging, yet it feels like Incognito-light. Nick Payne’s play overflowed with ideas, where memory and brain functions and emotional resonance chased each other, vying for space in people’s lives and bodies. By comparison, The Valley of Astonishment seems tame. The structure is fairly linear and the neurological experiences are not part of interpersonal relationships. We see every person in isolation, the neurology that affects their lives, but we don’t know what these lives are. Where are their loved ones? What are their hopes and desires outside their neurological skills or difficulties? Sometimes the play opens a door but doesn’t go through: the main character starts using her memory as a performance trick. Although there is a lot of research about actors, performing and memory (much of it popularised), this is not touched upon.
Which is not to say the production is colourless or unexciting. It’s winning throughout, with a visual richness and a set dominated by clear horizontal and vertical lines and reds and purples bleeding into each other. I was particularly thrilled when one of the characters started singing a greek lullaby.
And without exception, the acting is of the highest quality. Alongside the always excellent – and high-octane – Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill change several roles and impress. Their versatility is highlighted by an unassuming and most unactorly quality. I say this as the highest praise: they don’t perform like actors, yet the quick rotation of characters proves that they are. Kathryn Hunter, on the other hand, is inquisitive and chid-like. Her performance is a question mark, a scientific quest in itself.
The Valley of Astonishment is a fulfilling experience, full of colours and shapes, I just wish it was more adventurous and spirited one.