Paint By Numbers

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Peter Brook's The Valley of Astonishment

Young Vic | London

directed by Peter Brook & Marie-Hélène Estienne

The human brain is a mighty mansion, and for those who would open its doors to an audience the temptation must be to give them the full whirlwind tour, right down to the last neurological nook. The Valley of Astonishment resists any such real estate puffery. Instead we are offered a bare square within a stage, house lights at a purr, a few chairs and a coat-stand. Performers scamper behind the stalls and re-enter to create new spaces, while musicians sit on stage, brought on to play parts as and when they are needed. Investigating the marvels of the mind really is brain surgery of a sort, but the intention here is to ensure it doesn’t feel like it.

And it succeeds charmingly. Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne have written and directed a show that more flagrant practitioners would have made a dog’s dinner out of. Here it is whipped up with the delicious simplicity of a croque monsieur. Produced first at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord earlier this year, it follows in the brilliant footsteps of Oliver Sacks, thanked in the programme, who brought to light such intriguing cases as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and The Autist Artist. This show has done its research, yes; but it never feels like a neurology lecture.

Entwined with references to Attar of Nishapur’s Persian epic The Conference of the Birds, the play revolves around Sammy, a journalist and synesthete. For Sammy, numbers have colours, sounds have physical forms – and on this multi-sensory palette she exercises some astounding mnemonic talents. When, much to her dismay, Sammy is dropped from her job in order to be studied by doctors, a comedy of certitude sees her gaining a starry agent and becoming a theatrical hit. Soon enough the price she pays for stuffing her memory palaces full of random words tossed out by the audience night after night becomes apparent. For most people the problem is remembering – Sammy’s burden is that she cannot forget. And yet she would not wish herself any different. To quote the text, highlighting the heart-tugging trust that the synesthetes put in their medical observers, “I know you won’t take away this rich world I live in.”

As Brook says in his foreword, the time-old challenge of theatre is to bring together two opposites: the familiar, in order to involve the audience, and the extraordinary, with which to amaze them. In this respect it seems that theatre is much like human relationships. And what a human we have in Kathryn Hunter. Her bewildered smile, her little stoop and exasperated gestures, her pure, beaming sufferance when her world is suddenly pulled from her feet and her remarkable skills set to breakneck work. Hunter’s performance, as ever, is a source of consistent wonder.

The show is shot through with Raphael Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori’s delicate, sonorous accompaniment; whether expressing a synesthete painting jazz or echoing the legend of the phoenix. Marcello Magni displays tremendous physical pizzazz as a patient who cannot move his limbs without seeing them, while Jared McNeill appeals warmly throughout, movingly playing against expectation as Sammy’s exigent agent.

Proving once again that life is stranger than art, there was an unexpected turn at this performance from a rather enigmatic audience member. Magni, knuckle-deep in several mystifying card tricks at the time, dealt with it both consummately and wittily – yet it also added a strangely complementary touch to the show. We may not always understand each other, we may even think each other mad, but the beauty of mankind is our near endless willingness to sit there and hear each other out.

photo | ©Simon Annand

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