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