the Valley of Astonishment, ( 1ère L-ES3-S2 euro)

The Valley of Astonishment : an innovative play

Watch out ! May contain spoilers !

Our European class went to see a play last Friday : The Valley of Astonishment. It was written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène d’Estienne. Peter Brook is known worldwide for his innovations. Even if he has been a director for 70 years, he still invents new stagings !
This play is very innovative too. It’s about synesthesia, a disease which mixes our senses. For example, Sammy Costas the main character sees words as pictures and numbers as shapes. Before seeing the play, we studied this disability in class. I found interesting to watch a story about this condition on stage. I was not disappointed ! Kathryn Hunter who played Sammy Costas was astonishing, she was really expressive. We could read on her face that she was bewildered by her own abilities. I was also flabbergasted that she could learn all these lists of numbers or things and say it that fast !
The other actors were talented too. They had different characters to embody but managed to switch from one to another easily. It didn’t disturb me at all since they changed their clothes, attitudes and way of talking. Marcello Magni played a scientist, a magician, a man who has muscular paralysis and I felt that it was never the same person ! By the way, I was impressed by his acting when he played the paralyzed man. He was all red just by standing up.
I also liked the story of Sammy Costas. Let me sum it up. She is fired because she is too qualified to be a journalist. Indeed, she has an amazing memory ! So she becomes a TV show performer : her job is to memorize 44 random names. Unfortunately, her brain is cluttered with all these words at one point. Sammy has a problem that I had never thought about before : she doesn’t know how to forget. At the end of the play, she finds a way to get rid of all of them by saying “No” to her memory. Don’t you think it’s an unusual story ? They explained in detail how Sammy Costas’s memory worked and it was really interesting. However, I would have loved to know more about Sammy Costas’s feelings. As I said before, the actress was expressive but I still felt it was possible to develop that part. The play is quite short, 75 minutes, so I guess they didn’t have the time to do so.
There are still a lot of things to talk about : lights, music, staging… But I will let you see by yourself ! I recommend that you should see it : it’s worth the price.

Want to be stunned ?

If you want to be stunned, go see the valley of Astonishment before reading this review. The greatness of the play will be obvious, even without reading this article.
For those who are still there, I’ll try to convince you to go watch this masterpiece.
First, the script and staging were created by Marie-Hélène Estienne and Peter Brook, who is one of the most famous stage directors of 20th century, and this is his play. I think it’s pretty important to set that context.
Then, the story, the plot of the play is very interesting ! Here are one or two sentences about it :
Sammy Costas, a 48-year-old woman had an amazing memory. She worked as a journalist. One day, her boss realized that she had this this extraordinary ability, sent her to neuroscientists, for her to be tested. Then she was hired in a TV programme and presented as “a phenomenon”.
This play is about the human brain, its mysteries, and about an illness called “synesthesia”. Learning things about this disease was really interesting, I must say.
Actually, if you’re a musician, you have to go and see this play. Music is used as a way of expressing yourself, and its essence is represented in the Valley of Astonishment. At one point, a pianist, who accompanies the actors during their performance started to play a Bach piece. Everybody was listening. The audience held its breath until the last note was played. To me, it was the most touching moment of the play, and, believe me, there are some touching moments. The actors were also very expressive. Kathryn Hunter, who played Sammy Costas, had so many emotions in her voice, her movements, her way to look… A real performance.
I haven’t talked about the minimalist staging yet, because I want you to have a surprise ! However, here are some teasers : the only props the actors use are chairs, a table, and costumes. On the ground, there is a big white square, setting up a surface. I can’t tell more !
And if you’re still not convinced, go see it for the beautiful theater “les Bouffes du Nord” in Paris !
I promise : it’s worth it !

A memory full of images

On the 2nd December, we went to see a play called The Valley of Astonishment at the theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. This play was written and staged by Peter Brook, a famous director, with the help of Marie-Hélène Estienne. The story revolved around a woman named Sammy who used to be a journalist until she got fired from her job after finding out that she had synesthesia. It’s a syndrome where the memory part of your brain is very developed and so you have a very good memory. We follow her story after she finds out she isn’t like the others, and we see how she copes with her new way of life and with the scientists that are now interested in her. I did quite honestly like the play but I must say it was only some elements that made me love it. I learnt before the play that the setting would be very minimalist and I had already seen a play where it was the same but it didn’t turn out well. However with this play I was happily surprised that the actors used the minimalist setting to its fullest. The stage had been delimited by a big white square of fabric where the actors would play, and the props amounted to three chairs, a table, a broom and a hat-stand. To my big surprise with only that, they managed to make this play so lively. What helped achieve this liveliness was also the musician playing the piano who created atmospheres which were good, and more importantly the acting skills of the actors especially the actress that played the main character Sammy. She was able to own the stage, it was breathtaking. What was also impressive was that the actors could speak so many languages from French to Italian and also Spanish with so much ease, and all this in one play. These were the excellent parts of the play but there were a few things that didn’t really grab my attention : if they hadn’t explained and illustrated how Sammy’s brain worked the story in itself wouldn’t have been as interesting, but they caught my interest when Sammy explained how she saw numbers and where she kept all the information she gathered. Unfortunately one of the actors’ accent was quite thick so it was hard to understand and when he had his back turned I couldn’t really hear him. Nevertheless I think this play is a must see and is worth every minute.
Emma Delmas

A review about The Valley of Astonishment

Last Friday, we went to the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord with the European section’s students. The play was staged by Peter Brook, a worldwide famous stage director. This is the story of Sammy Costas (played by the British actress Kathryn Hunter) who suffers from synesthesia, which means that she associates colors and places to numbers. As a result, she has an astonishing memory. She is fired as a journalist because her boss wants her to exploit her gift. She starts as a music hall performer, but all doesn’t go well. She discovers the limits of her memory, and she is finally ready to work for science.
I really liked this play because the theme of synesthesia was very new to me. The actors were particularly good, but what I preferred was the staging : Peter Brook is talented. First the set was minimalist, there were only three chairs that the actors moved and it was the audience’s job to imagine that the characters were in a hospital or in a music hall. The actors performed on a white platform, and when they left this platform, they could change clothes to become new characters. Moreover, at one point in the play, another synesthete who associated music with colors, started to paint. He was holding a broom used as a brush and moved on the platform which was lighted in green or blue. This set was very impressive and beautiful : the music played an important part in this scene, but not only. Indeed music was very important in the whole play. For example, it accompanied Sammy when she delivered all the numbers she remembered. The play also ends on a piece of music, and the musician Raphaël Chambouvet was always on stage.
To conclude, I encourage you to see this play : the actors are very good and the staging is impressive. This play will make you think about the greatness of our brain and the limits of our memory.
JOUET Audrey, 1L

Explore the human mind with Peter Brook

The human mind is extraordinary and still today we want to explore it. The Valley of Astonishment is a play which shows the life of Sammy Costas, who suffers from synesthesia. We saw this play in Paris in the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord. Peter Brook, the director, lets the public enter Sammy’s head and explore it. After being fired, Sammy decides to join the Magic Show to use her extraordinary memory.
First, I’d like to focus on the most important element, music and lights. With this really minimalist set, Peter Brook wanted to show the public how Sammy’s brain worked. Music had an important part : Raphaël Chambouvet was playing music with his piano during all the play. Music expresses the emotion of an actor but it can also describe synesthesia. At one point, a man was painting with a broom and lights, and he used Jazz music to explain how his brain worked. I really thought that I was in his brain, that I was a part of the play and that I was on stage. As I was close to the stage, I was lucky enough to be able to pay attention to the lights. Since the character matched a number to a colour, it was important. Lights were dancing on the wall whereas music created a rhythm.
The other point I’d like to focus on is the number of actors. Only 4 actors played more than 10 characters ! Amazing isn’t it ! They tried to transform themselves in the way they walked, the way they talked. For this, they only used a few props and costumes like a white coat, a hat or a jacket. Even though I knew it was the same person, I couldn’t recognize them after their transformation. Sometimes they were speechless or motionless and a few minutes after they were making jokes about disabilities.
When I arrived in the theater, I thought it was going to be boring. Little did I know that it would be as funny as it was. The play really tried to convey a message and to explore our brains but in an interesting and amazing way. Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni and Pitche Komba Wombo did an excellent performance. I hope you will watch it and enjoy it as much as I did.


An interesting play exploring the mysteries of the human brain.

From November 24th to December 23rd, the play The Valley of Astonishment is performed at the theater des Bouffes du Nord. I saw it with my class last Friday evening. The authors and stage directors are the famous Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne. There were three actors, Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni and Pitcho Womba Konga and a musician called Raphaël Chambouvet who played the piano and another instrument on stage. The musician also played two parts. It was amazing because there were at least eight characters in the play.
The play concentrated on the life of Sammy Costas, a woman who has synesthesia and thus has an extraordinary memory. A synesthete can make relations between his senses. For example, words can be linked to colours. She is a journalist. At the beginning of the play, she doesn’t take notes in a meeting with her boss. Her boss is first furious but when he realizes that she can memorize all that he said, he is astonished. Following his advice, Sammy Costas goes to the hospital where her memory is tested. The next day, when she goes back to work, her boss fires her, telling her she could have a better job. He recommends her to a friend, director of “The Great show”, a TV show where extraordinary things are shown to the audience.
We then see the two doctors that Sammy Costas visits, and listen to a man who has lost his proprioception, which means that he can’t feel his body. This man moves thanks to his brain, by looking at his body. A synesthete who relates music to colours explains how he paints when he listens to music. Sammy Costas is employed at the Great show but she can’t forget the words that she had to remember. However she can forget numbers, so she does her trick with numbers. She finally can’t forget numbers anymore and chooses to become a scientist.
I found the actors’ performance great. They only used a cap or a coat to change the character they were playing, but their faces’ expressions and ways of being were so different, depending on the character they embodied that it was very easy to understand who they were. The musician was also amazing. Music had a central part in the play, it stimulated our imagination and mirrored the characters’ feelings. As for the props, they were minimalist : there were three chairs and a broom used as a brush. We had to imagine the places, which I found wonderful.
I really liked when Sammy Costas explained what she saw in her mind. I also enjoyed when the white rectangle in the middle of the stage was coloured in green and blue (it was a light effect) as a man acted as if he was painting.
I found the play very interesting because it makes us wonder about the human brain : how it works, how we can forget.
To conclude I liked all the play, except for a very short part with a card trickster. I advise you to see this play. It is still performed at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, so try and go as soon as possible !
Hélène Braun