Peter Brook has never seen the world like everyone else. The British director hoisted a groundbreaking A Midsummer Night’s Dream over the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970, the same year he founded the International Centre of Theatre Research (C.I.C.T.) in a boarded-over music hall in a working-class neighborhood in Paris. His over 70 years of theater making and reflection, explained in books like The Empty Space (not for nothing the best selling book in Performing Arts History and Criticism on Amazon), have transformed the way actors and audiences see the form.
So it’s hardly a surprise that, in his newest work, this now 89-year old visionary considers people who literally see and feel and hear the world differently than the rest of us. They are called synesthetes, and their everyday experiences register in two sensory or cognitive pathways at the same time, instead of only one. There are synesthetes who see letters and colors when they hear language, others who see colors when they hear sounds, yet others who feel sounds, or who perceive numbers spatially by placing them in a mental map, or even those who feel sensations when they see other people being touched. Synesthesia is still largely unexplained by science, but in “The Valley of Astonishment,” Brook and his longtime collaborator, Marie-Hélène Estienne, venture into a world where even doctors fear to tread.
They do so with the utmost care and sensitivity however, their purpose being, not to explain in any manner the causes of the condition, but to make us consider with the lightest of urging the moral and ethical questions of how society and science may perceive these sensory supermen and women (circus sideshow is a good place to start). The Valley of Astonishment presents a woman named Samy (the always incomparable Kathryn Hunter) who has both grapheme-color and spatial-sequence synesthesia, and, as such, a phenomenal memory. One day she is a journalist. The next, because her editor and a pair of cognitive researchers think her talents are going unrecognized, she is a Broadway sensation, repeating back random sequences of words and numbers as quickly as audiences can throw them at her, to the delight of a kind but savvy theater promoter.
Other unusual cases are briefly presented: there is an artist who paints the colors of the words he “sees” (Kandinsky was also a synesthete), a pianist who feels musical notes, a magician with a keen eye and a sharper memory, and a man affected with proprioception, so that he lacks a sense of the spatial position of parts of his body. The doctors ask careful questions, run tests, try to understand these patients, but their research can do nothing for ordinary people with extraordinary brains, except emphasize their difference. What are these exceptional minds like? Brook asks. But more tellingly also, what is a life, and when should it be free of the prerogatives of science or entertainment?
Unsurprisingly perhaps for someone considered a genius in his field, the mind is one of Brook’s particular foci of interest, and The Valley of Astonishment” intersects earlier explorations into cognitive phenomena by the C.I.C.T. These include The Man Who, and Je suis un phénomène, based on the clinical work of neurologist Oliver Sacks and the neuropsychologist Alexander Luria. Je suis un phénomène presents a patient with the inability to forget, a frightening condition which equally afflicts Sammy.
The production also reunites an excellent trio of actors from previous C.I.C.T. productions, Fragments and The Suit (both seen in New York in 2013). The roles of the doctors and patients are shared by Jared McNeill and Marcello Magni, whose card skit with members of the audience is a bit of unscripted magic. As Samy, Kathryn Hunter proves ever at home in the skin, or the fur, of the bizarre and marginalized (Hunter also starred in Kafka’s Monkey, at TFANA in 2013). The New York production sounds one flat note, however: the stage of the Polonsky Shakespeare Center lends the production a clinical sterility while the original, at C.I.C.T.’s home at the Bouffes du Nord, was bathed in that space’s deep red, quasi-mystical glow.
Brook is not the type to moralize, however, or give any answers. What he does is tell stories with the simplest of means (here, three actors and as many chairs, two musicians and a table) and ask us to listen and observe. He writes in another of his texts for theater, The Shifting Point, that rather than adhering to a single truth, one should be committed to a single point of view. Showing us ways of seeing – and demonstrating the breadth of his own – is surely not the least of his legacies to theater. Nevertheless, The Valley of Astonishment begins with the myth of the Phoenix and ends, in fact, with a bit of a moral: “When all traces of human life are gone,” McNeill tells us, “pay attention to the promise of a drop of rain.”
These wondrous mental landscapes are meant to remind us that where we may see one thing, or nothing at all, life, as in the Phoenix or a drop of water or a synesthete, is just waiting to astonish us.