In a recent article in the FT, Brook is quoted as saying that his “only aim in the theatre is that people, after the experience of one or two hours together, in some way leave more confident with life than when they came in”. It is a worthwhile goal and no one could accuse the legendary director and writer of not being a consummately curious man determined to show us the nature of what it means to be human.
The Valley of Astonishment of the title and his latest play refers to the sixth valley described in Farid Al-Din Attar’s 12th century epic poem, The Conference of the Birds. In this Persian poem, the birds elect a king who will lead them on a journey. Each bird represents a human flaw, which stands between them and enlightenment, and travel through seven increasingly difficult valleys, with many dropping out on the way to the Godly land. Ultimately, 30 birds remain and reach their destination only to find, a lake, in which they see each other and their own reflection…
In 1979, Brook very successfully adapted the poem to the stage at the Théâtres des Bouffes behind La Gare du Nord in Paris and has now returned to it to marvel at man’s capacity to perceive the world differently, thus the astonishment (if I understood anything of the evening).
In true Brook style, the stage is relatively bare with just a few chairs, a table, a coat rack and a square stage cloth covers the floor. And Brook is right. The human brain does fill the void and creates the illusion of a scientist’s or impresario’s office. Three actors with minimal disguise play a number of characters who mostly tell us the story of Sammy whose perfect memory led her to be studied by scientists and who later became a performer in a magic show. Sammy and other characters tell us of their fabulous gift of perfect memory and how colours and numbers become intertwined in their brains. In case you have not heard of the phenomena, it is called synaesthesia.
Synaesthesiais a neurological phenomenon whereby one sensory or cognitive pathway produces involuntary experiences in another sensory or cognitive pathway such that for some synesthetes, letters or numbers, are perceived as having a specific colour. For others, numbers, months of the year, days of the week might bring on precise locations in space. Along with Sammy’s story, the play also introduces us to a man who has lost his proprioception. If you have ever wondered how Tom Daley can dive off a high jump and turn so majestically in the air and you can’t, then you might want to look up proprioception. What you will learn is that great athletes, such as Daley, possess (along with many other qualities) an incredibly acute sense of proprioception (i.e., where exactly in space their bodies are at any point in time).
What these characters have in common is that they perceive the world very differently than most of us and Brook asks whether phenomenal powers are a blessing or a curse. Along with Sammy’s story, the play interweaves parts of the persian poem and some magic card tricks. So, the play’s main themes are interesting and I’ve long been intrigued by such phenomena. However, while it is one thing to be interested in examining how each of us sees the world differently, it is another to make a play out of it. Ultimately, Sammy’s predicament is not that she is a synesthete but that she cannot forget and that surely is common to all of mankind. How to forget things that hurt, that still embarrass us after many years or even that are unimportant. Why can’t we control our mind better?
The play is jointly directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne and while interesting and intriguing, it never achieved drama for me. Radio Lab in the US has done a number of shows on these topics and I find that their documentary story-telling approach is more conducive than theatre to examining these concepts. Perhaps, I enjoyed the auditory experience of the radio more because so much of it relies on me imagining what it means to perceive the world differently that I needed less (and not more) sensory experiences. It’s almost easier if I close my eyes.
Nevertheless, I did enjoy the evening and can only marvel at the ingenious way our brains make sense of the world and how to define our singular but so human perception whether we are synesthetes (and experience life in a more acute and richer way) or not. Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill convincingly take on a number of roles accompanied by musicians Raphaël Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori. Perhaps it is not the most dramatic story but it certainly is a dramatic subject.
And as Brook observed. “It’s a reminder to us all that whatever our experience at any moment, there is, in Shakespeare’s terms, ‘a world elsewhere’.”