July 2014 | The Young Vic, London
Peter Brook introduces this piece as an exploration into “the mountains and valleys of the brain,” (quoted from the programme) while borrowing from passages of The Conference of The Birds, a Persian poem (by Attar of Nishapur) about a journey of birds through symbolic valleys, astonishment (or bewilderment, but astonishment arguably sounds better) being no. 6. Brook had adapted this in 1979 while the body of The Valley of Astonishment comes from another project, Je Suis un Phénomène, which comes from an even earlier Brook show. It must be said that neurological disorders have been doing the rounds for inspiring theatre and art and by now, since Oliver Sacks’ book  on the subject should naturally run low on steam. We’ll see.
This being my first experience of Brook’s theatre (not to ignore Estienne) this was not the subject matter I was expecting; I was not taken “into unknown territories through people whose lives are so intense… they can pass at any instant from paradise to hell…” (Brook) but found myself rather comfortable: this wasn’t an intense a theatrical experience in the least.
The piece covers synaesthesia in various forms and is performed by five people, two of which are musicians. The story follows a woman with an incredible memory and is loosely interspersed with vignette case-studies including a man with proprioception. The performances need little comment, suffice to say that they certainly held their own against the pieces of material they had to negotiate. The mash of varying medical conditions intruded the main story arc seemingly at random. I felt like they chose some examples and didn’t want to list them off at once in the ‘research lab’ but had to stick and paste these mini-scenes at logistical convenience, such was the lack of framing and (hardly) interwoven in the way that they just happened which made it superficial. Furthermore, seeing a ‘subject’ describing their world in a single scene doesn’t classify a journey through their chaotic minds. An attempt is made to visually draw the audience into the world of a jazz musician, who associates sounds with colours and then ‘demonstrates’ painting by running around the set miming along to some music. Perhaps it would have been nice to use real paint, but that’s beside the point; the skit made the pale floor show varying colours as he moved, like an ambi-light, and that was it for the jazz musician (credit to Young Vic’s lighting for having nice washes.) It can’t be described without sounding rather weak. The actual story of Sammy Costas and her amazing memory progresses nicely from discovery, exploitation and catastrophe, and Kathryn Hunter is a fascinating performer that certainly owns a chunk of this play’s successes.
Brook’s notions of theatre appear here and there; Sammy Costas has this clown-like naiveness to her but it’s more tragic than comic by the end. Other examples of fluctuation occur within those boundaries of ‘The Empty Space’. The disappointing, while seriously verging on the pretentious, treatment of The Conference… poem being read out strikes us as the ‘Holy’, a way to connect spiritually/emotionally to the action on stage. But the moment with the Magician engages the audience in a different way, such as direct address and audience on stage and comes closer to ‘Rough Theatre’ and thus contained the distinctive comic energy.
The play wasn’t any more engaging with an awareness of these theatrical ideas; instead the hype of a ‘Journey’ comes across as cheating. Conventionally the play was good, if a little fuzzy in the treatment of the material. Unfortunately I have no memory of the classic Persian literature on which it’s based, which is a shame, and there was very little to be astonished by other than learning about rare conditions of the brain (about which there’s a book written by a certain O. Sacks that’ll do instead). It isn’t because they were subtle or over the top, but that they approached it as a ‘subject with a voice’ only for the central character, while the other conditions were rendered token examples.
Committing more to spectacle may push Brook’s definition of ‘deadly’ but may have also given more than what was offered, because as it is, it failed to create the ‘wonder’ in the ways they tried to dictate. That said, the performances were sensitively executed and varied enough to maintain a certain grace.
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