The Valley of Astonishment ( 1ère ES1-S3-S2 euro)

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The Valley of Astonishment, an exploration in the human mind

Last week, we saw a play at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris with our English class. Let me first explain what the play is about. The play is called The Valley of Astonishment and was written by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne. If you don’t know Peter Brook you should because he’s known for being one of the best and most influential directors in the world. He has a lifelong career of 70 years and worked on many different arts like theatre, opera and films. He likes working with actors because humans are for him the most important in a play. He once said that we obviously all had a head, a brain, but that we also had something we couldn’t put a picture on, something we couldn’t explain and that is a mind. That’s why he decided to write a play focused on the human mind, a play entitled The Valley of Astonishment.

I will present the story briefly. It’s the story of a young woman called Sammy Costas who has a rare condition named synaesthesia. All the parts of her brain are interacting together which allows her to have an incredible memory. She’s able to memorize everything by seeing pictures in her mind. Every number means something to her, like people she knows in real life. You quickly understand that in the story this condition is a gift but also a curse. Indeed Sammy has the incredible opportunity to be in a show and becomes a star but she also has to remember a lot of things which stay in her brain. She’s extremely sad and stressed because she doesn’t have the ability to forget. The story of Sammy intertwines with that of other incredible people : a musician who sees music in colors or a paralyzed man who succeeds in moving his limbs with his brain. There are also scientists who ask questions to help us understand better, and a one-handed magician to add comic relief to the play.
Finally I would like to tell you how I found the play. I don’t go to the theatre very often but I was amazed by this play. Even if the staging was minimalist, the play was very appealing because of the actors. Kathryn Hunter playing the main role was stunning. She’s very good. Marcello Magni also impressed me when he embodied all of these very different characters. The actors had very expressive faces and were using their bodies very well. Kathryn Hunter rushed to and fro to show Sammy’s extravagant personality. Light effects were also used very well. It gave to the staging something new and modern. The musician, Raphaël Chambouvet, played the piano incredibly well and succeeded in underscoring what was happening on stage. To conclude, I will say that this play is a must see. It’s another way of seeing the human mind and trying to understand it, as if we were delving into it.

A stunning play

« Sammy Costas, but everybody calls her Sammy » was born with an incredible memory which allows her to remember everything she ever hears, reads or touches. Fired as a journalist, she takes the decision to show the world her stunning capacities by producing herself in a Magic show. However, her memory soon proves to be a curse, because she can’t forget the words and the numbers she has learnt during the show. This play, staged and written by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, showed a really interesting view of synaesthesia and autism. The music and the actors’ performance particularly touched me, that’s why I will only give my opinion on these topics.

The character of Sammy Costas is played by the famous British actress Kathryn Hunter ; what I appreciated the most in her play was that she didn’t dive into the « clichés » of autism : she had a very fluid English and didn’t have any particular gestures. Her character was just as touching : her gestures, her way of speaking and the emotions she conveyed made us understand the difficulties people suffering from synaesthesia can encounter. I also liked some characters played by Marcello Magni such as a man who couldn’t do any movement automatically : he had to order his members to move . I thought Magni really succeeded in conveying how tough and demanding this character’s life is. However, I didn’t like the way he played the one-handed magician : he overplayed a bit and I quickly found that moment awkward.

The music was also quite impressive. Raphaël Chambouvet, the musician, managed to highlight the emotions conveyed by the play at several moments ; for example, when Sammy realizes that she can’t forget the numbers and words she learnt in the show, the music enhanced the sadness of the character and the emotion of the scene. On the other hand, when Sammy is very happy, a jazzy music shows the character’s enthusiasm despite her illness.

To conclude, this play is both original and lively, thanks to the actors’ performance and to an impressive musician. A very minimalist staging and an interesting lighting also created a very pleasant atmosphere.

Grégoire Saïas

Simple but Moving

Last Friday night (on 2nd December) we went to the theatre, with the European class, to see a play, written and staged by Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, called The Valley of Astonishment and I am going to give my opinion on it, but first let me sum up the plot. The play is about a woman called Sammy Costas. Sammy is not a woman like any other ; she suffers from synesthesia which gives her the ability to remember things easily especially numbers. At the beginning of the play she works as a journalist but when her boss learns that she has this condition, she is fired. Not because it is a problem but because she could do better things with this gift. Sammy is sent to meet with doctors and neuroscientists and one thing leading to another, she ends up in a TV magic show which is great at first but she finds it overwhelming at the end.
I found the subject of the play rather interesting. There are a few examples of different types of synesthesia, we don’t really learn more about how it works but it is still great to try seeing the condition through the eyes of the person affected. We really identify with Sammy during the play, for example when she is sad at the end, we can also feel her sadness. The actress that played her role (Kathryn Hunter) is a very good actress. I identify being a god player with me not being able to imagine the actor in another role. That is exactly what happened with her. The two other guys Marcello Magni and Pitcho Komba Womba did not only play one single character but a few. They were not as good (in my opinion). Apart from the actors, there was a musician, Raphaël Chambouvet. In the play the music was very important, the pianist played all along, as the story was going on. One thing that I liked was the Magic show in the middle of the play. I thought it gave a little time to laugh a bit and I enjoyed the fact that they were letting the public participate. I also appreciated the light effects ; I thought Philippe Vialatte did a really good job ! They followed the rhythm of the action.
I’ll end by saying that if you have the opportunity, you should go and see the play !
Angela Gaubert

An uncommon play

Last week we saw a play at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord called “The Valley of Astonishment”. It was written and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne.
The valley of Astonishment is the story of Sammy Costas, a woman who has synesthesia. It means that she is able to remember a huge number of words. After being fired when she was a journalist she finds a new job in a Magic Show. Her job is to remember every word that the public tells her and to tell them back in the same order. But one day, her brain is full of words and she isn’t able to throw them out of her mind. She has to find a solution. To know what she will do, go see the play !
Personally I really enjoyed this play. In fact, I think that talking about a topic like synesthesia in a play is uncommon and that’s why I liked it. It was a brand new experience.Concerning the staging I didn’t expect such a minimalist setting, no eye popping set, there were just a few chairs and a table. We were just fascinated by the plot and not by the set and that was exactly what Peter Brook wanted to do. For P. Brook there is the holy and rough theatre and that play is certainly in the category of the holy theatre.
Now let’s talk about the actors, Kathryn Hunter who played the role of Sammy was absolutely outstanding. I regret that I wasn’t closer to the stage because we could really see emotion on her face. And I forgot to specify that there were only three actors the whole play so all the actors had different roles.
Talking about lights and music, these two elements were playing an important part in the play. Music and lights gave a more emotional aspect to the speeches of all the actors and completed the actors’ sentences.
To conclude I think that you should all go and see this play even if you don’t understand English well, there are French subtitles if it’s really difficult to understand. In my opinion this is a very emotional play with an amazing topic and you can’t miss it !

Julia Gnatek

Personal review of “The Valley of Astonishment”

I saw the play entitled « The Valley of Astonishment » on Friday, at the « Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord ». Kathryn Hunter, playing Sammy Costas was surrounded by two other actors that night to perform a play focusing on synesthesia.

First, I was curious about the play I was going to see. Synesthesia is a condition which results in a mixing of the senses of the people suffering from it. Therefore, it wasn’t an easy subject to introduce, especially in a play. When it began, I immediately noticed the scenery. A white square on the ground represented the stage and there were only a table and some chairs. A piano had been installed, meaning that some music was supposed to be played. The pleasant feeling given by this minimalist staging grew during the play, as I enjoyed learning more about synesthesia.
The scenario was rather well-written, as some moments made me feel moved.
However, I found the whole “Magic Show”part a bit too long. Peter Brook, the director had seemed to make sure that there were some funny elements. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see how it was linked to the play : it just felt like it shouldn’t have been there. I particularly liked the ending, showing a woman confronted to her condition and seeing it like a curse. It was a more tragic element that we don’t get to see often.
Then, I appreciated most of the actors. They were really expressive and the way they easily changed role was impressive. I was a bit bothered by Pitcho Komba Womba, due to the fact that he was French and made some mistakes, speaking with a strong accent, but gladly surprised when the pianist embodied a character.
To conclude, I would say that this play was well written, interesting and nice to see. I would recommend it to some of my relatives because of its simplicity and because of what can be learnt concerning synaesthesia.