Report: Culture

At 89, Peter Brook still dazzles with The Valley of Astonishment

© Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne roll out a new play at the Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris.


Philosophy and entertainment combine in The Valley of Astonishment which investigates the power, intrigue and beauty of the human brain. The play incites us to consider the experiences of people who perceive the world differently from most. Who personify numbers, see people as colours, objects as tastes or smells which make them easier to remember.

In the play, actor Jared McNeill plays a character who suffers from a condition known as synaesthesia.

We may call these people poets now, but they are also often called mad, just because they literally see things in an unorthodox or unexpected way.

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The play - the third in a trilogy - is a result of Peter Brook's research in neurology, in epics and his interest for strange-but-true-life stories. London-based actress Kathryn Hunter, plays the main role, a synaesthete called Sammy Costas.

“Our source material was a man called Cherosevesky, who lived in the 1920s and who was examined by an extraordinary neurologist called Luria with whom he had a relationship over 30 years. But the work of Marie-Hélène and Peter was to be inspired by the story but to create a new character who’s living in the contemporary world.”

The play draws its title from one of Brook's sources of inspiration: twelfth century Persian Sufi poet Fariddudin Attar’s epic poem, Conference of the Birds. The birds fly through seven valleys on a difficult journey, but one of them is The Valley of Astonishment.

Taking the audience there, Hunter - like a bird - plays a woman of 44 whose exceptional memory leads to her losing her job as a news reporter and becoming... first, an object of scientific research and then a freak attraction on stage.

Like our brains at their best, and like the music played by Raphaël Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori, the play's mood and language changes, surprises. Playful, serious, tragic, funny, poetical, direct.

© Pascal Victor/ArtComArt

Hunter is a narrator, actor, cabaret artist and scientific curio. She's excited, scared, frustrated, angry, nostalgic. With Marcello Magni and McNeill, she's in a newsroom, a hospital, in a theatre... and there are just eight plain wooden chairs and a couple of tables - plus the musicians - on stage in the unforgettable Bouffes du Nord Theatre which Brook ran from 1974 to 2010. Brook uses all the illusion of the space he himself re-created, to make Hunter grow and diminish as a bird swooping and soaring in the sky.

She says that the play is a celebration of human beings.

“The most astonishing and glorious thing about Peter is to find in each human being, be they a mnemonist or a synesthete, or with no so-called special gifts, that what a piece of work is man”

At 89, Peter Brook - inspired by the poets and with help from Estienne, their actors, musicians and light-engineer Philippe Vialatte - continues to give the complexities of the world and stage, a simple appearance.

The play is in Paris at the Theatre des Bouffes Du Nord until 31 May 2014.

Then it’s set to travel for six months in Europe and the US.

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