The Valley of Astonishment both simultaneously amazes and perplexes audiences as it delves into the mechanics of the human mind. Directed in partnership by the renowned Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, The Valley of Astonishment ensured, from the outset, a challenging and stirring piece. However, whether that challenge was altogether progressive is questionable.
Influenced by a variety of sources ranging from the scientific fact of neurological research, to the more emotive and mystical reliance on true stories and Farid Attar’s epic poem ‘The Conference of the Birds’, the play explores the astonishing complexities of the mind, focusing on the experiences of people with synaesthesia and impaired proprioception. Despite both conditions contradicting each other, with impaired proprioception (paralysis) demonstrating an evident deficiency of kinaesthesia (feeling) and synesthesia exhibiting a sensory overload, ultimately the play seeks to demonstrate how both conditions exhibit the lack of sensory control the mind has over the body. This conception is brilliantly encapsulated by Kathryn Hunter who charismatically relays the sensory experiences of protagonist Sammy Costa as we are taught not only of the synaesthesia condition’s leverage of her intelligence, but also of the limitations it causes to her everyday life.
Through Sammy Costa’s narrative, as an audience we are prompted to re-evaluate the way in which we make symbolic connections within our own minds, as she gives each word its own image and individual story separate from its signifier. As a ‘sufferer’ of synesthesia, she exhibits a fusion of the senses resulting in, for example, sound being associated not just aurally but visually too, a connection she methodically uses to aid her memory. This impression seems to be intentionally recreated for the audience by Brook and Estienne as each word the actors speak is accompanied with its own musical symphony making this production so much more than a spectacle, but more an experience. The two man orchestra — Toshi Tsuchitori on esraj and percussion, and Raphaël Chambouvet on keyboard — not only serves to traditionally emphasize and escalate the tension within the plot, but in their own right give us a beautiful musical performance and an illustration of synesthesia, as we are forced to maintain a balance of attention between music and words and the actions of performers.
Baffled by Sammy’s astounding capacity to remember and regurgitate anything and everything she is told, we witness the advancement of her life from her original inconspicuous position at a newspaper, to the setting of medical laboratories and theatre stages, where both scientists and audiences test and marvel at her talent. Despite at times confusing the narrative, both Jared McNeill and Marcello Magni are brilliant in assuming an array of roles from tormented sufferers and arrogant editors to enthusiastic doctors, all of which cleverly demonstrate the variety of stances towards the neurological phenomenon of synesthesia.
In light of the recent debate over people’s right to ask Google to ‘forget’ them, the topic of memory and its limitless possibilities is undeniably already at the forefront of many of the audience’s minds. However, Brook uses both the physical fragility of Sammy’s tiny frame, and her mental vulnerability to differentiate her human qualities with that of a mechanical computer. Sammy’s panicked state as her ‘blackboard is full’ highlights that, unlike hard drives, we cannot simply reduce a human to mere details. Her tormented musings, ‘how do I forget?’ reiterates the constraints of her prodigious status, as she is not valued as a human but more as a form of spectacle and entertainment.
In the Q&A after the show, Brook himself reasserted the focal point of his captivating play and prompts the eminent question – Why must we test memory? In their examinations, are doctors helping their patients or simply as in Sammy’s case ‘bringing clutter to a world of clutter’? The play is not only an exploration of Cognitive Psychology and the astonishing way that the mind works, but a critique of the way science classifies and defines humans. Brook is not interested in meanings and definitions that constrain the individual, as after all, the neurons and synapses of each individual can never be completely understood. Through the intertwining of the multitude of senses, the play reiterates that it does not simply deal with the mind or brain, but the more obscure matter of the body.
The minimalistic set comprising simply of a few sparse chairs and tables, ensure that over theatrical tendencies don’t detract from the power of synesthesia, as the audience has to rely more vividly on music and lighting. However, despite the seamless engagement of the audience through music, at one point Brook undermines the importance of his play with the interjection of the one-armed magician who calls audience members on stage for a stereotypical card trick. Yes, while you can say Brook was merely following the Shakespearean principle of simple humour, as he himself asserts that ‘too much intensity is intolerable’, it seems that he goes slightly too far in the wrong direction as the kiddies act simply jars a play that until then captivates all our senses.
The dramatic ending of Tsuchitori’s performance ensuing in the audiences shared silence is a microcosm of The Valley of Astonishment. The reluctance to break the silence with applauds underlines the notion of bewilderment: pain, suffering and an opening to the unknown. The paradox of synesthetes in their inability to grasp the richness of life due to involuntary senses will not be forgotten by the audience.
The Valley of Astonishment continues its run at the Young Vic, London until 12th July 2014.