Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Show Preview: The Valley of Astonishment

Written and Directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne

Cast: Kathryn Hunter (Sammy Costas), Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill
Musicians: Raphaël Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori

Jared McNeill and Kathryn Hunter in The Valley of Astonishment

I first encountered Peter Brook some 15 years ago as an undergraduate when I was required to read his book The Empty Space for a directing class. The unit was focused on re-thinking the actor/audience relationship, and we were looking at Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski simultaneously. We read Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre first, for which Brook had written an introduction. His introduction did not make much of an impression on me, except for one small section near the end, when Brook says the aim of his own theatre (as opposed to Grotowski’s) is to bring together “the private and the public, the intimate and the crowded, the secret and the open, the vulgar and the magical” (14). I didn’t really know what this meant at the time, but I thought it sounded cool. The vulgar and the magical… I suppose it might be fair to say this idea has become a guiding force in everything I work on these days.

Peter Brook
Brook’s book is divided into four sections: the deadly theatre, the holy theatre, the rough theatre, and the immediate theatre. For those who have never encountered Brook, here is a (very) quick and dirty run-down of what these classifications mean (please pardon my momentary lecture mode):

  • The Deadly Theatre: This is the kind of theatre that addresses passive spectators – the kind of theatre he felt was taking over the stage at the time. No engagement, no need to think or be disturbed, everything outlined and perfectly understandable, handed to the audience (sitting quietly and passively in a dark auditorium) on a silver platter. Commercial theatre, meant to give audiences exactly what they expect, and make lots of money.

  • The Holy Theatre: Theatre concerned with ritual and higher values (moral, spiritual) – making the invisible intellectual and spiritual realms of the human… well… soul, if you will, visible and concrete onstage. The concern is that the Holy theatre might remain on this “higher” plane and therefore not really engage with the audience on an everyday or physical level.

  • The Rough Theatre: Focuses on senses, physical impulses, and direct engagement with the audience (and social engagement – audience members with other audience members). Brook was worried that an over-reliance on the Rough theatre might cause theatre to be simple and shallow (so, where the Holy theatre might cause people to get too much in their heads and not connect physically, the Rough theatre might cause people too think too much in physical and social terms and not connect intellectually/spiritually).

  • The Immediate Theatre: The combination of the best elements of the Rough and Holy theatres. Something that engages the audience on both a physical (sensory) and intellectual (spiritual) level.

These different “theatres” raised all kinds of new issues for me about theatre back in my undergrad days that I am still struggling with today. What is theatre supposed to do – what is the function/purpose? How does theatre-the-art relate to theatre-the-business? What does the mutability (changeability, volatility, plasticity) of theatre do to the experience of a production (from the perspective of both the artists and the audience)? What is required for theatre to be theatre, and what is not required?

This play itself is highly intriguing to me for a variety of reasons, some which sound fancy and academic and others which really are just me being a total geek. But that’s ok, too.

The Valley of Astonishment centers on the neurological disorder known as synaesthesia, a condition that causes sufferers to experience a kind of blending of the senses. For example, you might experience colors as smells, or sounds as colors. Because theatre, at its core, is something we experience through our senses, I am very curious about how the idea of a kind of disconnect between the senses, or sense confusion, might change our experience of the world and the theatre (cause us to question certain assumptions about the theatrical experience).

The title of the play comes from a 12th century Persian poem – The Conference of the Birds – which tells the story of birds who are searching for a leader, and travel through seven valleys (including the valley of astonishment – the 6th valley). I confess that I have not done a ton of research into this poem (ran out of time), but my understanding from reviews of the show and a quick Google search is that the valley of astonishment comes after the valley of unity, which involves letting yourself go in in order to become one with everything else – you are nothing in the light of God’s presence (you are enfolded into god – selfless). In this state, you reach the valley of astonishment and bewilderment – everything is new, astonishing, and no longer connected to a sense of self or the expectations you may already have about yourself and the world.

The cast is led by Kathryn Hunter, who is a well-known and highly accomplished actress. For the Harry Potter-minded, she played Arabella Figg in the HP movies, so you will probably recognize her (here’s where the geek-out comes into play for me – yay Harry Potter!).

Kathryn Hunter in The Valley of Astonishment

When we see The Valley of Astonishment there will be several things I will be thinking about – several questions I have in my mind about the production. I want to know what Peter Brook does with a play. How does he create his own theatre? Is it immediate, rough, holy, deadly, some combination, something new? How does he set up the actor-audience relationship? How does synaesthesia come into play in both the play and in the theatrical event?

Buckle up, y’all – this will be a weird one! (so excited!!)

Just for fun:

“What Does Your Tube Stop Taste Like?” by Ben Riley-Smith
The Telegraph, August 23, 2013
    • Apparently our Russell Square Station tastes like celery.

Peter Brook’s Introduction to The Valley of Astonishment:

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