by Lynn on July 11, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Vic Theatre, London, Eng.

Written and Directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne
Lighting by Philippe Vialatte
Musicians: Raphaël Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori
Performed by:
Kathryn Hunter
Marcello Magni
Jared McNeill

Underwhelming, which for a Peter Brook production is really disappointing.

The Story
. Celebrated theatre director, Peter Brook, his collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne and the company continue to explore the brain and how it works. They began initially a few years ago with The Man Who which explored madness.

The Valley of Astonishment goes into the realm of memory, colour and connection. A woman applies for a job as a reporter. She is interviewed and given an assignment with complicated instructions on where to go to interview a subject. She takes no notes. The person who interviewed her is annoyed at this and feels the woman hasn’t taken the job seriously. She then proceeds to repeat every instruction he gave to her, along with every person’s name she has to contact, together with their 10 digit phone numbers and their various addresses. She gets the job.

A man associates colour with words and names. One name in particular, Blake, is vividly associated with a colour. Another man, who only has the use of one arm, does magic tricks with playing cards and accomplishes many tricks that seem difficult and perhaps magical resulting in many in the audience being astonished.

The Production. The playing area is simple and spare. Sturdy blonde wood chairs and a table are used. The lights are up full and never vary. Very simple.

The three performers–Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni and Jared McNeil- play the various parts. The always compelling Kathryn Hunter is just such an arresting performer. She is so petite she is almost child-like. A voice that is like a loud foghorn. It carries and sails through the air. She is of a certain age and scurries, she never moves slowly. She plays the reporter with a bit of smugness but it’s earned. The woman takes no notes and is probably always questioned about it until she can reveal her prodigious memory. It’s not a mean smugness; more like tired of having to prove herself.

She agrees to be examined by two doctors who are examining memory and the brain to see how some people have this gift and others done. She is put through a battery of tests to see how she can remember so many complicated lists and numbers. . She uses a system of association to remember lists of objects and things. Some is stream of consciousness, some is association. She shows off her talents in a kind of circus side-show. She is given a long list of items to remember and then gives back the list almost perfectly. One of the items in the list is an egg. When reciting the list she forgets egg. She suddenly remembers: “Yes, white on white, I couldn’t see it so, egg”. So we get a sense of her association of how she remembers. What is missing is how she remembers the order and how she comes up with the association to quickly.

The man who only uses one arm does card tricks as a performance. He picks a woman (Ms Hunter) —I’m not sure if in fact it’s the character of the reporter—but he asks her to pick four cards from the deck and not show him. When they are revealed, they are all aces. We are all astonished. Well almost all. I’m not. The person picked here is actually part of the ‘act’, so where’s the trick.

Then the card shark picks someone from the audience. A man is chosen; picks a card from the deck; can’t look at it and is asked to guess what it is. He has no clue. He is maneuvered by the card shark to say he comes up with nothing. The card is turned over. It’s blank. There is nothing on it. Ooohs and ahs from the audience. What no one asks is to see the whole deck to see what the other cards look like. I’m confused as to how a person who can fool an audience with card tricks shows the mysterious ways of how the brain works.

Marcello Magni is the card shark and one of the doctors. He is like a pixie man; bright eyes, sweet face; engaging, charming and easy on stage. He has a grace that makes people trust him. He is curious, quizzical, quiet and never confrontational.

Jared McNeill is the most understated of the three, dare I say, the weakest of the three. Again, quiet, deliberate in his speech, thoughtful. He plays a doctor, and the man who sees colours when he speaks of words and a narrator of sorts at the end.

At the end, the reporter tells the two doctors who have been examining her over the series of tests, that she will devote her time to science and not reporting. She says she will donate her brain to science, when she is dead of course (little laugh there), and so then they can dissect it and will actually tell how her brain is different. The two doctors look at each other, a sense of unknowing, not answering, suggesting that they know they won’t figure out how the brain works that way. My eyebrows are knitting.

One of the two musicians plays a mourful piece of music on a long wood flute. Jared McNeill says quietly that when the world is almost destroyed there will still be evidence of another time. He mentions a deep well, unused in which they could find the broken leg of an ant. This last is said very slowly for effect so that we are hanging on to the very last words, ready to be astonished. Or hurl at the total pretentiousness of it all. Then they all take their smiling bow, pleased as punch with themselves for being so ‘astonishing.’ Feh.

Comment. From the program note of Peter Brook: “Today, once again, we are exploring the brain. We will take the spectator into new and unknown territories through people whose secret lives are so intense, so drenched in music, colour, taste, images and memories that they can pass any instant from paradise to hell and back again. We link this to the great Persian poem The Conference of the Birds. Thirty birds in their quest for a King have to cross seven valleys of mounting suffering and discovery. An amazing series of anecdotes from the life of the time of poetry and humour brings their story into sharp relief.

So as we explore the mountains and valleys of the brain we will reach the valley of astonishment. As we go forward with our feet firmly on the ground, each step takes us further into the unknown.”

Oh PULLLLLeeeeeze! What twaddle. If this is a show about how the brain works then we should see it. We are given hints into how the reporter remembers things. Ok we know about tricks of association, but she is given so many items to remember, so quickly, that we need to know the trick. How does she pick the associations? How does she remember the sequence? We don’t know and aren’t told. Surely we should be.

I don’t understand the notion of a person seeing colour with each word or name. That’s not explained. The card tricks…what does that have to do with anything? That the man has only the use of one arm and can cope? By doing card tricks? I don’t think so.

This isn’t theatre. There is no tension, drama, opposition. For this Peter Brook needs a collaborator for both the writing and the direction? He is the draw of course. A disappointment.

Produced by Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord and the Young Vic.

First performed
: June 20, 2014
Closed: July 12, 2014
Cast: 3; 2 men, 1 woman
Running Time: 80 minutes

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