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 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.
The Valley of Astonishment plays at the Young Vic until 12 July. Tickets range from £10-£35. Londonist watched this show with a complimentary review ticket.