Review | The Valley of Astonishment


This review was written for the Londonist

Synaesthesia is a joining of the senses. It’s when you experience sound as colour, say, or numbers as tastes and names as texture. A piece of music might appear as giant puffs of glittering smoke. It sounds wonderful, right? Watch this play and you’ll probably change your mind. Synaesthetes live in a heightened version of the world, which – as the central character in The Valley of Astonishment explains – can be a rich paradise but also a particular kind of hell.

For a play about multi-sensory experiences, where lists of words or numbers are laden with colour, texture and a vivid geography, the set in the Young Vic’s main space is surprisingly sparse: a few light wood chairs, a plain pine table, characters dressed mainly in black and white. It comes to be a great illustration of how things can appear very ordinary, even boring, on the surface while fireworks are exploding underneath. Rather than relying on stage tricks, it’s a funny and poignant script by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, a cast of three excellent, multi-tasking actors and gentle live music that bring The Valley of Astonishment to life.

Kathryn Hunter, who plays a journalist with an extraordinary memory, is a wonder. Her small frame and elastic face ripple with both torment and joy as she experiments and is experimented on. Don’t get us wrong, this isn’t a play about exploitation. Hunter is a willing patient and the doctors who work with her are full of admiration and respect. She is, in their eyes, a phenomenon. Together they explore her mental capacities, which she puts to the ultimate test after losing her job as a reporter and taking to the stage instead. The moment when her ultimate plight – the inability to forget – is laid bare is when we fully understand that her sparkling brain is as much a curse as a blessing.


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