“It could do with a drop of paint,” Kathryn Hunter says as she steps out on the Bouffes du Nord stage in Peter Brook’s The Valley of Astonishment. Referring to the theatre’s famous preserved-mid-crumble facade, it’s an amusing meta moment in this thought-provoking, if not exactly astonishing, ensemble piece. Hunter’s character, Sammy Costas, is performing as a variety act, showcasing her remarkable memory after losing her job for her over-qualified brain. Given configurations of random words by an imagined audience, she internalises and repeats them through a series of complex but instinctive mnemonics. Alongside a cast of other characters who perceive the world in different ways (multi-role-ed by Marcello Magni and Jared MacNeill), Costas gives us an insight into how her mind works, crafting a dramatic collage of neuro-diversity.
Hunter – who has a presence so magnetic that most people would gladly watch her read a shopping list aloud – brings a devastating complexity to the role. While there’s a sense that her physical prowess isn’t exploited to its full potential (she has previously worked with Complicite, and most recently embodied Red Peter the ape in Kafka’s Monkey), Sammy’s battle with her burdensome memory is subtly and painfully evoked, as she tries in vain to erase the figures etched on her mental blackboard. Magni and MacNeill are similarly captivating as a host of other characters, including a manipulative magician and a struggling synaesthete whose mind conflates sounds and colours.
The staging has the minimal, “empty space” aesthetic typically associated with Brook, bare but for a few wooden chairs dotted around and occasional props. This is wholly appropriate for the piece – its subject matter, after all, is one that has to be imagined – but seems occasionally uninspired. A mimed action of setting some pages aflame is slightly slapdash, and the occasional projection of brainwaves onto the screen normally reserved for surtitles is a little half-hearted. The music, however – performed live by Raphaël Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori – adds a vital dimension, and a sequence in which MacNeill paints the wall in coloured light accompanied by the bold, bombastic score is particularly evocative. Overall, it’s touching and occasionally mind-opening – just not terribly memorable.
The Valley of Astonishment is playing at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris until 31 May. For more information and tickets, see the Bouffes du Nord website.