Thursday, 26 June 2014

Theatre review: The Valley of Astonishment

I'm always excited by the prospect of seeing Kathryn Hunter, one of the most extraordinary actors alive, on stage, so to see her in something distinctly underwhelming is more than a little disappointing. How much more so when legendary director Peter Brook and his regular collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne have chosen what should be an endlessly fascinating subject matter: In The Valley of Astonishment, Hunter plays Sammy Costas, a 44-year-old woman whose photographic memory excites scientists. Mrs Costas, it transpires, has synaesthesia, the condition that muddles the responses of the senses. So words can have a colour, numbers a taste, sounds a personality. It means everything she sees or hears automatically becomes part of a mental landscape she carries with her, and every memory can be easily recovered.

Losing her job as a newspaper researcher because her boss thinks she should be using her talents for showbiz purposes, Sammy is persuaded to perform at a night club, but as audiences get her to remember random sequences of words her mind is overloaded, and the gift of remembering starts to look like a curse of being unable to forget.


Hunter is backed up by Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill as various doctors and other subjects, while two musicians chip in with, usually pretty maudlin, tunes. And this is something of a maudlin show; despite the fact that most of the synaesthetes we meet have found ways to turn their condition into a positive, the overall impression given by The Valley of Astonishment is that it's a crippling nightmare. The mournful soundtrack hardly helps with this, but there's also a listlessness to the whole enterprise.


Hunter is good value as ever but the men don't match her energy, and the decision to have one of the musicians, Raphaël Chambouvet, play a role in one scene is bizarre since between his thick French accent and not being able to project his voice, exactly what he was saying is a mystery. Magni comes to life for a scene as a one-armed magician who gets the audience involved, but apart from driving home the fact that Sammy's found herself in a glorified freak show, there's little point to this lengthy diversion.


It really does seem as if Brook and Estienne have looked at a potentially fascinating subject and tried to make it as dull as possible - this Valley of Astonishment doesn't quite seem to have astonished its creatives. Not only have they not used Hunter's unique physicality, they've also not bothered to engage many of the senses in a show about an overload of them; instead they've opted for a fairly dry recounting of the doctors' investigations into Sammy's mind. Perhaps synaesthesia should have been the subject that the multimedia-using Belarus Free Theatre next door in the Maria tackled instead; then the Young Vic might have had one strong show rather than two disappointing ones.

The Valley of Astonishment by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne is booking until the 12th of July at the Young Vic.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

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