Review: The Valley of Astonishment, at the Young Vic Theatre

Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni Photo Simon Annand

Kathryn Hunter and Marcello Magni Photo Simon Annand

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. Continue reading

Review: My Perfect Mind at the Young Vic

 Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge Photo: Alastair Muir

Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge Photo: Alastair Muir

Here are the facts: Edward Petherbridge, while in New Zealand rehearsing King Lear in 2007, suffered a stroke. That experience (the illness, the production that didn’t happen) inspired My Perfect Mind. Here is another fact: the play, written by Kathryn Hunter, Paul Hunter and Petherbridge himself, is simple (two actors playing dozens of parts with the assistance of mundane props) yet difficult to describe. It’s free association, perfectly structured, executed and improvised, through the imagination, emotions, memories and images of a perfect mind. Freud without the couch, the doctor or the breaks. Continue reading

Review: A Tender Thing, RSC, at the Swan Theatre in Stratford

Richard McCabe as Romeo and Kathryn Hunter as Juliet. Photo Keith Pattison

Is love a tender thing? It is too rough. Too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like thorn.” At its best, writing a review is my attempt to stay a little longer in the world of the production. Not to explain or dissect, but to stay in a place that I loved. A Tender Things is such a place. Ben Power’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with an old couple facing the only inescapable tragedy love deep into old age can face, is indeed a tender, magical, deeply moving and ultimately joyous thing.

Ben Power rearranges Shakespeare’s text into a new world, but words carry the memory of young love and language leaves space for unspoken sorrows to live. Richard McCabe and Kathryn Hunter, under the direction of Helena Kaut Howson, create a world of two people, a world so complete and perfect, that the ending is the natural and only possible conclusion. (In Shakespeare’s play, the tragedy is there are many solutions to the problem, but none is taken and the story ends in death. In A Tender Thing, the tragedy is the characters have to face the end in the full knowledge that there is one possible conclusion).

Kathryn Hunter, with her vital physicality, gives her Juliet an extraordinary spectrum of emotional and physical life, even as she wastes away. Richard McCabe lives the joy of love and the tragedy of parting with heartbreaking openness. He pulls, pushes, struggles with his glasses like these actions could give an end to his pain. When he gives into it, everything about him crumbles. Their spoken interactions are teasing, silly, warm but their true emotional life is in their physical connection: in one scene Romeo tries to support Juliet who, literally, slips away from him. His distress and resolve reflects everything that is at stake. Continue reading

What will be the National Theatre’s Christmas show and other stories

This August continues to be slow for theatre (after all, we have all been focusing on other exciting events), but casting and other news are hotting up. Here is what caught my eye this past week:

  • Director Jamie Lloyd launches his own production company in association with the Ambassador Theatre Group. The announcement of this new commercial theatre venture comes not long after Michael Grandage announced his West End season of five plays chock full of big names (Simon Russell Beale, Ben Whishaw, Judi Dench, Daniel Radcliffe). Although my wallet undoubtedly suffers when I have to pay West End prices, it’s healthy to have commercial theatre that feels exciting.
  • A couple of years ago, the Royal Shakespeare Company produced and toured Ben Power’s play A Tender Thing, a new way of looking at the story of Romeo and Juliet. I was sad to miss it then, but the play returns at the RSC this autumn, this time with two of my favourite actors, Richard McCabe and Kathryn Hunter. Not missing it this time.
  • Anne Marie Duff at the Donmar was already exciting news, but now the remaining cast for Jean Racine’s Berenice has been announced: Stephen Campbell Moore and Dominic Rowan will join her as husband and lover. In this “perfect tragedy of unfulfilled passion“, it’s a delicious combination.