THE VALLEY OF ASTONISHMENT
Warwick Arts Centre, Wednesday 11th June, 2014
Alarm bells are always set ringing whenever I see in the programme that the director (in this case the legendary Peter Brook) has written a ‘statement of intent’. I’m a firm believer in the idea of a play speaking for itself and so, joke’s on you Mr Brook, I haven’t read your statement.
With my internal pretentiousness-ahoy klaxon about to go off big time, I settle in my seat and wait for the show to begin…
Codirected by Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, this Theatre des Bouffes du Nord production is set in what is by and large an empty space (of course, this being a Peter Brook) with only a few chairs scattered around, a small table, a coat stand… But mainly, there is as little as possible. Three actors and two musicians occupy this space; it begins with each actor taking a turn in a spot of storytelling – something about Persia – but this is only a prelude to the play proper. In this minimalist setting, a naturalistic story unfolds, with narration and sometimes direct audience address. It’s the story of Mrs Costas, a woman with a prodigious memory. She undergoes tests for some scientists and becomes a successful novelty act performer, a la Derren Brown – sort of – but there are problems. She finds she is unable to forget any of the trivial information she memorises for her act. Show business is not the answer – who knew?
As Mrs Costas, the remarkable Kathryn Hunter reconfirms why I hold her in high regard; it’s a much less physical role than, say, Kafka’s Monkey, but no less captivating. She is a magnetic stage presence. Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill play the scientists, Costas’s boss, her agent and so on in a manner that appears effortless, moving from character to character, location to location with clarity and style. Raphael Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori provide an atmospheric musical underscore that enhances the story, filling the empty space with aural colours – this is a play about synaesthesia, after all! – It’s a play about the human mind and the nature of memory and it’s a thoroughly absorbing and involving, small scale piece with big themes – once you get past the opening moments, that is. And it’s funny and accessible with a positive disposition towards human nature.