The Valley of Astonishment, Young Vic, theatre review: 'Exquisitely judged'

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Kathryn Hunter is deeply funny and touching as Sammy

Twenty years ago, having taken myth as far as it can theatrically reach in the mighty nine-hour Mahabharata (all human and cosmic life was there), the great director Peter Brook made his first exploratory foray inward into the labyrinth of the brain with The Man Who...

Inspired by the writings of Oliver Sacks, that show turned its humane gaze on those neurological disorders which, in annulling a function we take for granted, give us a fresh, defamilarising perspective on the mysteries of what it is to be a person.

Now, in his ninetieth year, Brook returns with this last, exquisitely judged instalment – co-written and co-directed with Marie-Helene Estienne -- of what has proved to be trilogy about the brain and its wonders.

Here, though, the focus is on a neurological condition – synaesthesia --- where it's the extraordinary enhancement of normal perception  that boggles the imagination of those of who don't have it, though it comes, as we see, with serious potential drawbacks.

Synaesthetes are people in whom one sensory impression may automatically and instantly incite another – so that a particular word might always taste of raspberries, say, or the sound of a flute smell of heather.

Kathryn Hunter, Jared McNeill, Marcello Magni and Toshi Tsuchitori in The Valley of Astonishment Kathryn Hunter, Jared McNeill, Marcello Magni and Toshi Tsuchitori in The Valley of Astonishment

There's a joyous sequence where the flat of a young artist is flooded with a succession of different colours as he paints and listens to jazz (provided by the two onstage musicians). He thanks the doctors for not wanting to take this gift away from him. 

But the liabilities of the condition become apparent through the experiences of a female news reporter, Sammy Costas. She can memorise fiendish strings of numerals or poetry in a language she does not understand by “encrusting” each separate syllable with an image and then storing these along her mental picture of the streets near the house where she was born.

But soon after being declared a “phenomenon” by the neurologists, she loses her job and is taken up by big-shot impresario as the star attraction on a variety bill. The demands of the routine exacerbate her sense of loneliness and choke the thoroughfares of her mind with memories that she yearns to forget.

Kathryn Hunter in The Valley of Astonishment Kathryn Hunter in The Valley of Astonishment

Brook's minimalist production unfolds with a sublime lightness of touch, seamlessly encompassing moods that range from the impishly playful to the ineffably sad to the life-renewingly mystical (there are periodic excerpts from the great Persian poem The Conference of the Birds).

Though it looks at how Sammy is turned into a freak show, its own characters are never simplified into case studies there to be pruriently gawped at. There's an attentive respect for their humanity and their irreducibility to brain chemistry. Kathryn Hunter is deeply funny and touching as Sammy – a tensed-up elfin figure whose face gapes with brimming bemusement at her own uncanny powers and who is yet capable of a beseeching, child-like trust.

Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill deftly portray the doctors and all the other personnel – Magni excelling as a tacky magician hilarious at audience-participation card tricks and as a man who in order to stay upright has had to learn to control his body with his eyes, second by second, so that each day is a gruelling marathon. His prankish sense of humour, though, is in fine working order. 

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