The preternaturally talented Kathryn Hunter practically defies credulity on stage. Last year, in Kafka’s Monkey, the diminutive performer, using her ultra-flexible limbs, throaty voice, and piercing intelligence, transformed herself into a sentient male chimpanzee who had been taught to speak and behave like a human. A few months later, she equally dazzled as an ageless, genderless, shape-shifting Puck in Julie Taymor’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Greek-American actress, who grew up in England and has worked mostly overseas, is currently back in New York, at Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, in the aptly titled The Valley of Astonishment, a theater piece about the miracles of the mind co-written and directed by the renowned Peter Brook and his longtime collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne. I caught up with Hunter recently to learn more about the new work and about her own remarkable journey as an actress.
How would you describe The Valley of Astonishment?
I would say it’s an exploration of what it is to be human. We meet a woman who has a prodigious memory, a young man who has synesthesia, which is a condition where the senses are mixed—a sound becomes a color, words have tastes and forms and shapes—and we meet another man who’s lost his sense of his body and is paralyzed, but who manages to walk again by controlling his limbs with his eyes. In the end it follows, most specifically, the story of the woman, Sammy, who becomes a performing mnemonist; she memorizes so many words and tables of numbers for these performances and then suffers from the inability to forget, and so she starts hallucinating. The piece has an unusual form, which I think people will find intriguing. As with the best storytelling, it changes narrative, changes tone; there’s humor and then it shifts to a more poetic level. Peter [Brook] is continuing his [previous] exploration of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which was based on the Oliver Sacks books. These neurological disorders, in fact, turn out to be quite wondrous. So at the end of the day, I think I would characterize the play as a celebration of the human being, a celebration of difference.
What is it like to play Sammy, this woman with extraordinary capabilities?
It’s an act of imagination, because she also has synesthesia and her senses are working overtime. So during the day I’ll be on the subway and I’ll imagine that people have colors, or their conversations have shapes, or the sound of the subway arriving has a particular form. I’m encouraging my brain to inhabit the right landscape; then when it comes to performing, I have to delete the fact that I’ve been a performer for a very long time, because it’s Sammy’s first time on the stage. She begins to find joy in performing; at first it goes very well and she’s a huge success. She employs what the modern mnemonists call the “memory palace” technique, where she turns words into objects and places them in streets. But then the streets become full and there’s no space to put anything anywhere. So her strategy fails her and she’s in despair—becoming almost mad with this overload. She also has an impending sense of loss because she has found a sense of identity in performing. I hope that other people without having to be mnemonistic performers can identify with that sense of going on a new journey. We’re always looking for strategies, always looking to find a way forward and somehow you have to find the courage to go on. So in that sense, Sammy is a very courageous woman.
As an actor, you’re pretty courageous yourself. You haven’t only transcended the boundaries of gender and species, but also overcame what would ordinarily be considered physical limitations as well. Could you talk about how your work spans both classical and physical theater despite a personal injury?
After Bristol University, where I studied French and drama, I went to RADA [Royal Academy of the Dramatic Art], which is a very classical school—like the Oxford of acting, which was very text-based. After that I met a company called Theater de Complicité whose orientation was physical. It was a great second training—a science of the space and physicality. There’s been this perception that you are forced to decide between physical theater and text-based theater, but I’ve always felt that they reside together.
In terms of my injury, in my early 20s I had a very bad accident, but I returned to drama school. It seemed like a terrible thing at the time—my legs weren’t working—but it was sort of a revelation and a gift, revealing the expressive possibilities of the upper torso. I had to come down this long staircase—I was in a musical—and I remember my mates looking at me thinking, “Is she going to make it?” And so I played with the upper torso and my arms and the voice and I realized that a limitation can be freeing. I don’t know if you followed the Paralympics recently in London. It was magnificent. More and more, I must admit that although it has been a long time now since my injury, it redoubled my feeling that a so-called disability, whether physical or otherwise, can with will power actually be a spur to releasing other possibilities.
You could say the same thing about the characters in The Valley of Astonishment...
Exactly. There’s also a magician in the show, played by Marcello Magni, who’s based on a real Argentinean who lost his hand in an accident when he was eight years old. He’s now a consummate card player—you can buy DVDs about him and everything—and he even goes beyond that. Apart from the artistry of his card tricks, he also tells stories, he’s poetic, he has wit. It’s another testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.
Magni is the co-founder of Theater de Complicté, the company that introduced you to physical theater. He’s also your husband, and you’ve worked together for quite some time, haven’t you?
That’s right, which is very joyous. And we worked together with Peter for the first time on Fragments, five short plays by Samuel Beckett. So it’s wonderful to come together again with Peter, who has created a family, I think.
What’s it like working with Brook? The legendary figure of modern theater is still going strong at 89…
Some people call him a guru, but if he’s a guru, he’s a very lovable and fun-loving guru. Peter is very present in the sense that he’s so generous; he goes right to the heart of the human condition and at the same time he’s very direct. I wish us all at his age to be as smart, as playful, as perspicacious, and have as much energy. There’s something indomitable, but I think it’s based on a profound curiosity about life and people. He’s very playful in his spirit, and at the same time there’s the wisdom of advanced years. You feel that in the piece.
A source of inspiration for the work is the Sufi poem, “The Conference of the Birds.” This piece is kind of streaked with passages from that poem, which is a spiritual parable about a group of birds who go on a quest to find the truth. The text is very beautiful and suggests that our journey is a series of valleys. The title The Valley of Astonishment comes from the sixth valley in the book, which is full of pain and a journey of lamentation. But it’s very subtle with Peter; he never wants to advertise anything. There’s a sense in the poem that life is a constant quest to go forward, but it’s very lightly placed in the play. It is, I think, one of the qualities that one aspires to with Peter because he embodies it himself—a lightness in the playing, even though there are deeper truths underneath.
You keep challenging yourself in your work. Would you consider playing the title role in King Lear a pinnacle? Do you try keep astonishing yourself?
King Lear is very much in my heart. I directed a piece in London, which is being remounted, called My Perfect Mind, about an actor who had a stroke whilst he was rehearsing King Lear. So, yes, among other things, King Lear remains a great yearning in me; the play is in my heart and soul and I would love to do it again. And in terms of astonishing, it’s looking at life daily and realizing that it is astonishing if one opens oneself to it. Peter is always asking for openness to ourselves and to each other. I think that’s the journey.
The Valley of Astonishment runs at the Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center through October 5.