The Valley of Astonishment (Young Vic Theatre, London) – review – Carole Woddis.

Peter Brook, the sage and philosopher of Theatre.  Gradually, as the years have passed, he’s evolved from the precocious `enfant terrible’ to the Grand Old Man.  Yet that description doesn’t quite fit him.  Brook is like no other theatre director in the precision and simplicity towards which he is forever striving, what you might call the `zen’ moment.

A longtime devotee and practitioner of meditation, there is a moment too in this latest work, The Valley of Astonishment in which you can hear the hubbub of life quietening, the pace slowing and a quality of emptiness filling the auditorium – a quality of silence.

It is very special to Brook and it is at once magical, spiritual and very beautiful.  And contained within that, there is also an innocence, naivety almost, quite out of step with most contemporary theatre execution which seeks to dazzle, impress and overwhelm.  Brook asks us not to be distracted but concentrate, for a moment, on something larger.  More opaque.  Just being.

The Valley of Astonishment does astonish but by its very nature almost disarms criticism.  A sequel to Brook’s earlier The Man Who taken from the Oliver Sacks book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, once again Brook the explorer has returned to the neurologically fascinated Sacks and his case histories of the extraordinary workings of the brain and the aberrations it can produce – in this case the state known as synaesthesia, a condition in which sounds, words and/or numbers, even music, can be perceived by the individual as colours and images.

Kathryn Hunter plays a journalist whose life is becoming `blighted’ by her prodigious memory.  Series of numbers and names can be rattled off in a process of associated imagery.  She is referred to doctors (Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill) and Hunter, with her own wirey frame and hypnotic presence embodies a situation in which over-abundance becomes at first a means of earning a living as a stage `phenomenon’ but which later becomes a liability.  She simply cannot rid her mind of all the numbers she has remembered that have been thrown at her by the public as part of a theatre turn.  She is over-saturated.  She is going to have to find a way to forget – by writing the numbers out, making a bonfire and burning the paper – a therapeutic tool familiar to anyone has tried to distance themselves or wish to be rid of unwanted thoughts caused by emotional trauma.

But it also becomes a neat parallel for modern life with its bombardment and over-stimulations and the search for an emptying of the mind to discard and cleanse.

Brook handles all this with customary cool.  And unusual playfulness.

Part medical, part a revelling in the very theatricality of theatre presentation, Brook includes a cheeky interlude of audience participatory mind games and card tricks with Magni as the smiling, one armed magician seemingly predicting the cards chosen by a volunteer from the audience.

Freak show as circus, behind it all, however, lingers still a sombre enquiry – that questing, searching spirit for who we are and what makes us who we are – a knowledge that may only come through suffering.  And further research.

Brook and his associate Marie-Hélène Estienne book-end the 75 minute performance with intimations of hope in the face of annihilation taken from the Persian poem, The Conference of the Birds and climaxed by Japanese musician Toshi Tsuchitori with a haunting woodwind lament.

Still the master – and yet forever a child in wonder and amazement.  Perfect for those who like their theatre a touch enigmatic, curious and ultimately wise.

The Valley of Astonishment is at the Young Vic Theatre to July 12, 2014.

See www.youngvic.org.

© Carole Woddis, July 2014.