Financial Times
June 13, 2014 6:31 pm

Interview: veteran theatre director Peter Brook

By Sarah Hemming

The once-maverick theatre director, now 89, still divides opinion. He talks about his latest creation and his desire to ‘savour life more fully’

Peter Brook picks up a tumbler of freshly squeezed orange juice from the table in front of him and revolves it in his hand. “I look at the glass of orange juice,” he says. “I listen very, very atten-tively . . . no sound emerges.”

Well, of course not, you might think. But while for most of us colours, sounds and sensations re-main obstinately separate, for others the lines between them are porous. The great pioneering the-atre director and I are discussing synaesthesia, the extraordinary neurological condition where the senses overlap: a sound, for example, might evoke a colour or taste. We agree that if you don’t have the condition, it is very hard to imagine. Which is precisely why Brook has made a theatre piece about it.

The Valley of Astonishment (which opens at London’s Young Vic next week) draws on the experi-ences of synaesthesia and attempts to communicate them using first-person testimony and stage-craft. Lighting, for instance, paints the stage in rapidly shifting colours to convey what one man hears when he listens to music. “We’re using the theatre to give life to a research that otherwise has no form or body,” Brook explains.

Not easy. But then all his life Brook has had an appetite for difficult theatrical terrain. Now 89, frail, but still cordial and spry in a black leather jacket and brightly coloured shirt, he meets me in an op-ulent Paris hotel. The place is full of handsomely furnished spaces but he chooses, characteristi-cally, a quiet corridor where no one else is likely to settle.

Brook has always gone his own way. He blazed a trail through British theatre in the 1960s and 70s, experimenting with form and revolutionising theatre practice with his minimalist staging of Mid-summer Night’s Dream (1970). His distillation of theatre to its basics in his 1968 book The Empty Space remains a guiding principle for many contemporary theatre makers. Its simple opening im-age of a person in an empty space has been the foundation of all Brook’s work in recent decades.

But he still felt constrained by the British theatre conventions of the time. In 1970 he left to travel the world, exploring theatre practices, and has never lived in Britain since. Settling in Paris, he cre-ated the International Centre for Theatre Research. He spent months, even years, developing pieces.

His eclectic methods and sage-like aura have produced intense reverence in some quarters and scepticism in others. They have also resulted in some outstanding pieces, one highlight being The Mahabharata (1985), an unforgettable nine-hour staging of the great Indian epic that sent fire lick-ing across the sand and arrows raining over the stage to summon elemental battles. Typically, he responded to its success by changing tack and journeying inwards.

“When The Mahabharata was over, I was swamped with invitations,” he says. “To do Beowulf, to do the Icelandic myths, to do the German myths – all that. Because I was now the Specialist on Old Myth,” he chuckles.

“I said, ‘But I’m not in the myth business.’ People always do that: if I’ve done a play by Chekhov somebody says, ‘Ah your next Chekhov . . .’ And I say, ‘But I’m not doing another Chekhov. This is something for now.’

My only aim in the theatre is that people leave more confident with life than when they came in “So my question to myself and my close collaborators was: what could be a similar research into what human life is about, but from a different perspective and from present-day conditions? . . . We started this research into what the brain is.”

The Valley of Astonishment is the third in a sequence of plays about the mind, initially inspired by the work of neurologist Oliver Sacks. The first was 1993’s The Man Who . . ., based on Sacks’ book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The new show is also typical of Brook’s recent work in being spare, delicate and distilled.

Before our meeting, I watch the show in Les Bouffes du Nord, the beautiful, dilapidated theatre be-hind Paris’s Gare du Nord that the director made his home for more than 30 years. The piece is simple in structure, delivered (in English) by three actors and two musicians on a near-empty stage. It’s humane, intensely focused, but also surprisingly light, playing little games with the audi-ence.

A packed crowd listens intently and several linger in the bar afterwards to discuss the show with the cast. Brook says this is common: the piece has touched a nerve with many. One woman re-called that her mother had always had a different coloured toothbrush for each day of the week – a routine that suddenly made sense.

“The people with this condition actually receive moments of their life more richly than we do,” Brook observes. “It’s a reminder to us all that whatever our experience at any moment, there is, in Shakespeare’s terms, ‘a world elsewhere’.”

He talks about one man who lost his proprioception – the inner sense of body position that enables us to co-ordinate movement – and yet learned, painstakingly, to control his limbs again by using his eyes.

“He came to see us when we were doing The Man Who . . . To everyone’s amazement, the door of the theatre opened and he strode in, sat down and crossed his legs. We thought someone would have to carry him in from the taxi. But he says he cannot for one second let go of this acute atten-tiveness with the eyes. Even today. If, for a moment, the lights go out, he has learnt how to let him-self lean backwards against a wall because otherwise he would fall on the floor.

“And the thing that is so moving is that for him the great joy of Christmas day is that he is alone in his house and he sits on his chair and just lets himself go.” Brook demonstrates, letting himself go limp. “Because every moment for him is a marathon. Every moment.”

Brook stops, clearly moved. And this surely is the nub of the show: it is not designed to make audi-ences gawp at case histories, but to alert them to the out-of-the-ordinary capabilities of the mind. The piece encourages us to empathise with the characters but also to think about the perceptive tools we use to understand theatre. It’s about awareness in several senses: about what it means to be human.

There’s a click of heels on marble and we are joined by Marie-Hélène Estienne, Brook’s long-time French collaborator: a brisk though not unfriendly woman. She’s come to discuss her part in the play but also to keep Brook to his timetable (he is not a man for a short answer).

The two engage in a lively debate about the meaning of the word “compassion”. “I think you have to kill your judgment,” says Estienne. “Open yourself. When we worked on the play, the first thing that struck us was: ‘Who am I?’ Really.”

That undimmed curiosity about what makes us tick seems to be what keeps Brook making theatre after 70 years in the business. The simplicity of his style, once revolutionary, is less surprising now – some have found recent works repetitive or underpowered – but the urge to comprehend re-mains fresh. His latest book The Quality of Mercy, a collection of essays about Shakespeare, fin-ishes by examining Prospero’s final speech from The Tempest, with its plea to be forgiven and “set free”. Tolerance, clemency, mindfulness – late in life these qualities preoccupy Brook.

“What we need more and more is to savour more fully any moment of life,” he says. “And I think the theatre can do this. My only aim in the theatre is that people, after the experience of one or two hours together, in some way leave more confident with life than when they came in.”

‘The Valley of Astonishment’, Young Vic, London June 20-July 12.
Then touring from September

The Guardian

The Valley of Astonishment review – a sensory meditation on the human brain

Young Vic, London

Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne's tale of synaesthesia is an astonishing look at the mira-cles of the mind
4 / 5
Michael Billington

The Guardian, Tuesday 24 June 2014 13.05

Nervous theatre-makers strain every nerve to get our attention. But the striking thing about this 75-minute piece, written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, is its maturity, calm and aesthetic grace. It is as if its creators assume that we're fascinated by the subject, the working of the human brain, so they don't need to shout and scream. The show grew out of an earlier piece, Je Suis un Phénomène, which dealt with memory. In this case, the focus is mainly on syn-aesthesia, in which one sense is stimulated by another. We follow the fortunes of a fictive female, Sammy Costas, whose ability to see words as pictures gives her a phenomenal memory. Fired as a journalist and investigated by cognitive scientists, she turns into a music-hall performer who is ultimately traumatised by her unusual gift. Her story is interwoven with that of a 28-year-old man who relates music to colours and with a study of a senior citizen whose impaired proprioception, or inability to sense his body, means he has to use his brain to overcome muscular paralysis.

What, some will ask, does this have to do with theatre? In the hands of Brook and Estienne, every-thing. They engross us in the human predicament of Sammy, whose mnemomic power is both blessing and curse. We see precisely how she is able to memorise the opening of Dante's Inferno while learning how, when it comes to numbers, she's tormented by her inability to forget. But the show, in its variety of tone, also reminds one of Brook's famous categorisation, in The Empty Space, of "holy" and "rough" theatre. Here holy theatre is exemplified by passages from The Con-ference of the Birds that give the show its title. But when Marcello Magni, as a one-handed magi-cian, persuades audience members to participate in card tricks, we are into the world of popular theatre.

The show is staged with minimalist beauty; nothing appears on the pristine white platform that is not used. The acting is similarly unforced: Kathryn Hunter, as Sammy, suggests an ordinary woman bewildered by her extraordinary power; Magni effortlessly switches from white-coated sci-entist to genial card trickster; and Jared McNeill conveys the relief of a man whose understanding of synaesthesia enhances his love of jazz. The two musicians, Raphael Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori, are also integral to underscoring the show's quiet astonishment at the miracles of the human brain.

Until 12 July. Box office: 020-7922 2922. Venue: Young Vic, London.

The Independent

The Valley of Astonishment, Young Vic, theatre review:

'Exquisitely judged'
Kathryn Hunter is deeply funny and touching as Sammy
Paul Taylor
Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Twenty years ago, having taken myth as far as it can theatrically reach in the mighty nine-hour Ma-habharata (all human and cosmic life was there), the great director Peter Brook made his first ex-ploratory foray inward into the labyrinth of the brain with The Man Who...

Inspired by the writings of Oliver Sacks, that show turned its humane gaze on those neurological disorders which, in annulling a function we take for granted, give us a fresh, defamilarising per-spective on the mysteries of what it is to be a person.

Now, in his ninetieth year, Brook returns with this last, exquisitely judged instalment – co-written and co-directed with Marie-Helene Estienne -- of what has proved to be trilogy about the brain and its wonders.

Here, though, the focus is on a neurological condition – synaesthesia --- where it's the extraordi-nary enhancement of normal perception that boggles the imagination of those of who don't have it, though it comes, as we see, with serious potential drawbacks.

Synaesthetes are people in whom one sensory impression may automatically and instantly incite another – so that a particular word might always taste of raspberries, say, or the sound of a flute smell of heather.

There's a joyous sequence where the flat of a young artist is flooded with a succession of different colours as he paints and listens to jazz (provided by the two onstage musicians). He thanks the doctors for not wanting to take this gift away from him.

But the liabilities of the condition become apparent through the experiences of a female news re-porter, Sammy Costas. She can memorise fiendish strings of numerals or poetry in a language she does not understand by “encrusting” each separate syllable with an image and then storing these along her mental picture of the streets near the house where she was born.

But soon after being declared a “phenomenon” by the neurologists, she loses her job and is taken up by big-shot impresario as the star attraction on a variety bill. The demands of the routine exac-erbate her sense of loneliness and choke the thoroughfares of her mind with memories that she yearns to forget.

Brook's minimalist production unfolds with a sublime lightness of touch, seamlessly encompassing moods that range from the impishly playful to the ineffably sad to the life-renewingly mystical (there are periodic excerpts from the great Persian poem The Conference of the Birds).

Though it looks at how Sammy is turned into a freak show, its own characters are never simplified into case studies there to be pruriently gawped at. There's an attentive respect for their humanity and their irreducibility to brain chemistry. Kathryn Hunter is deeply funny and touching as Sammy – a tensed-up elfin figure whose face gapes with brimming bemusement at her own uncanny powers and who is yet capable of a beseeching, child-like trust.

Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill deftly portray the doctors and all the other personnel – Magni excelling as a tacky magician hilarious at audience-participation card tricks and as a man who in order to stay upright has had to learn to control his body with his eyes, second by second, so that each day is a gruelling marathon. His prankish sense of humour, though, is in fine working order.

Financial Times
Last updated: September 21, 2014 8:55 pm

The Valley of Astonishment, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, New York – review

By Brendan Lemon
A fascinating exploration of the human mind from Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne

This calm, fascinating, rather chilly 75-minute theatre piece, written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, grew out of an earlier work, Je suis un phénomène, devoted to memory. This time, the subject is primarily synaesthesia, the condition that makes people involun-tarily associate something with an unexpected sense. The word blue “tastes” inky, or a D-sharp “looks” mauve.

I first encountered synaesthesia in the writings of Vladimir Nabokov – he, his wife and their son had the condition – but the authorial presence for Brook and Estienne is Oliver Sacks, as it was for Phénomène and The Man Who. If, for humans, the brain is the final frontier, these three explora-tions provide a fitting, near-final summa for the career of Brook, who is 89.

Offered in Brooklyn by Theatre for a New Audience, and showcased in the marvellously flexible Polonsky space, in its second season, Valley is handsome and spare. The playing space is white: having been introduced as a child to Brook with the similarly hued, early-1970s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I might say, were I synaesthesiac, that I see “Brook” always in that col-our.

The petite Kathryn Hunter, a Brook regular, is the fictive Sammy Costas. Her gift for seeing words as images stocks her memory with superhuman potency. Sacked from a journalism job and inves-tigated by scientists, she morphs into a variety-hall performer. Parallel to her tale are those of a 28-year-old man who connects music to colours and of an elderly gent who is unable to sense his body. Jared McNeill and Marcello Magni interpret these roles.

With the aid of audience members, Magni also does card tricks. Such sleight-of-hand contributes little to the storytelling, but it does serve to relieve the sometimes clinical feel of the proceedings. Similarly warming are the contributions of the onstage musicians Raphael Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori, and the bits of Persian tale-spinning that surround the action.

When Valley played the Young Vic, in London, this past summer, after a premiere engagement at Brook’s home base, the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, in Paris, a couple of critics taxed the pro-duction with seeming too lecture-like. While it is true that the amount of information imparted im-bues the evening with a slight whiff of the classroom, it is also true that the level of imagination on display resembles no school that I had the misfortune to attend.