Fascinating journey through the capricious landscape of the human brain

The Valley of Astonishment

Dutch premiere

Peter Brook, Marie-Hélène Estienne, Bouffes du Nord

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Imagine a world where every sound has a colour. Where every colour has a taste. Where the number 8 is a fat lady. The Valley of Astonishment explores the fascinating experiences of real people who see the world in a radically different way. Director Peter Brook and his actors combine true stories of these experiences and the results of neurological research with the epic mystical Persian poem The Conference of the Birds, which tells of a group of birds on a quest taking them through seven valleys.As Brooke and his actors take us on an exploration of the mountains and the valleys of the brain, we will ultimately reach the valley of astonishment.
Programme Icoon

‘Theatre as it should be.’

The Telegraph over The Suit

Background information

Following his opera Une flûte enchantée in 2011, the prominent director Peter Brook (1925) is back at the Holland Festival with The Valley of Astonishment, another collaboration with Marie-Hélène Estienne. Brook has labelled The Valley of Astonishment a 'theatrical exploration', continuing a theme which he first approached with Estienne in his production The Man Who (Holland Festival 1995). Asking the question how (different) patients with a neurological disorder perceive the world, Brook and Estienne based themselves on the work of the British writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks. Brook's position is that theatre exists to amaze us, bringing together two opposites: the normal and the exceptional. The Man Who showed us normal people who because of illness behaved abnormally and erratically and who were, until the not so distant past, labelled as insane. The performance intentionally muddles up the difference between these characters and the audience in a tragic, comic and dramatic way.

The Valley of Astonishment is, just like The Man Who, performed by four actors and a musician. It's another wonderful journey of discovery through the human brain, inspired by up-to-date insights from neurological science. However, Brook and Estienne take matters a step further this time, introducing four characters to whom music, colour, form, memories, scents and feelings evoke extremely contrasting experiences. Imagine a world in which every sound has a colour, every colour has a taste, and the number 8 is a fat lady. It's a mind-boggling performance exploring the fascinating inner world of some extraordinary people who due to their illness experience the world in a radically different way, tossed between heaven and hell from one moment to the next.

The performance is inspired by the epic, mystical poem Conference of the Birds (1177) by the famous Persian poet Farid ud-Din ‘Attar. The poem tells the story of thirty birds who are on a quest which takes them through seven valleys, each valley more dangerous and difficult to navigate than the previous one. Brook staged this Persian epic before, in 1979, but now, 35 years on, he has put the age-old story in a completely new context. In his monumental career as a theatre, opera and film director, spanning 70 odd years, Brook has always explored key philosophical questions, whether it be in the Vedic epic The Mahabharata (1985, filmed in 1989), his work with The Royal Shakespeare Company – including his influential stagings of King Lear (1962, filmed in 1969) and Marat/Sade (1964, filmed in 1967) –, his adaptation of Dostoyevsky's short story The Grand Inquisitor (2004) or his minimalist performance about the life of the African Sufi mystic Tierno Bokar and his message of religious tolerance (Holland Festival 2005). Brooke has always been fascinated by people who experience things in their full intensity – the insane, the fanatic, the infirm – and The Valley of Astonishment is no exception to the rule, asking questions such as 'what do we really experience?' and 'does everyone in this world experience things in the same way?

The Valley of Astonishment brings together two strands that Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne have been exploring for many years: Islamic mysticism and the neurology of the human brain. The performance takes the audience along on a kaleidoscopic search through the mountains and valleys of the human brain. Reaching the sixth valley, the valley of astonishment, our feet tread steadily on the ground, but with each step we penetrate into the unknown.


In a career spanning 70 years, Peter Brook (London, 1925) has established himself as one of the truly groundbreaking film, theatre and opera directors of his generation. Directing his first play in 1943, he has since built a monumental body of work. His work is acclaimed worldwide, not only for its magnitude and stylistic range, but also because of Brook's continuous urge for innovation. For twenty years he was the resident director of The Royal Shakespeare Company, staging groundbreaking versions of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1946), Titus Andronicus (1955), King Lear (1962), Marat/Sade (1964) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970). He also made many of his successful plays into films. With Micheline Rozan he founded the research institute and production company Centre International de Créations Théâtrales (CICT) in 1971, which has since 1974 resided permanently at the Théâtres des Bouffes du Nord in Paris. There, the company worked on many acclaimed productions, including Brook's monumental adaptation of The Mahabharata (1985), as well as Ubu aux Bouffes (1977), Conference of the Birds (1979), The Tempest (1990), The Man Who (1994), Le Costume (1999), The Tragedy of Hamlet (2000), The Grand Inquisitor (2004) and Tierno Bokar (2005). Many of these productions were performed in two languages.

Meanwhile, Brook also made his mark on opera, staging, amongst others, La Bohème (1948), Eugene Onegin (1957), La Tragédie de Carmen (1981), Don Giovanni (1998) and Une flûte enchantée (2011). Influenced by the ideas of the French theatre visionary Antonin Artaud (1896 – 1948) and his 'theatre of cruelty', Brook became one of the first theatre directors in his generation to see the need for an open, empty theatre space to enhance the contact between the audience and the actors. Brook was adamant that every form of numbing the audience into a sense of comfort had to be banned. To him, direct and raw human connections are the essence of good theatre. Brook has received many awards in his long-standing career, including two Tony Awards for Best Direction of a Play, the international Emmy Award and The Ibsen Award. He has been made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1965) and Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur (2013). 

The French director, dramaturg and writer Marie-Hélène Estienne started her career as a theatre critic and journalist for the French publications Le Nouvel Observateur and Les Nouvelles Littéraires. In her own words, she was 'bored stiff' in this job and started to concentrate on producing. As an assistant to Michel Guy she contributed to the programming of the Paris Festival d'Automne and in 1974 approached Peter Brook asking if she could work with him. Brook consented, and after the casting for Timon of Athens Estienne became a member of Brook's Centre International de Créations Théâtrales (CICT), starting out as a production member for Ubu aux Bouffes (1977). At the CICT she rose to become Brook's assistant, resident writer and dramaturg. She worked on, amongst others, Le Tragédie de Carmen (1981), The Mahabarata (1985) and The Tempest (1990), she wrote and adapted The Man Who (1994) and The Grand Inquisitor (2004) – based on Dostoyevsky's short story from The Brothers Karamazov - and she wrote the text for Tierno Bokar (2005). With Brook and composer Frank Krawczyck she staged her own, stripped down version of The Magic Flute by Mozart and Schikaneder, entitled Une flûte enchantée. Estienne: ‘In the theatre it's great to be able to share responsibilities. Peter and I understand each other, we communicate well and have a good working relationship. He's a genius, always sharp, unpredictable and open.'


a theatrical research by
Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne
Peter Brook, Marie-Hélène Estienne
Philipe Vialatte
Kathryn Hunter, Marcello Magni, Jared McNeill
Raphael Chambouvet, Toshi Tsuchitori
C.I.C.T / Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
Theater for a New Audience, New York, Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg
associate producers
Théâtre d’Arras / Tandem Arras Douai, Théâtre du Gymnase, Marseille, Warwick Arts Centre, Holland Festival, Attiki Cultural Society, Athene, Musikfest Bremen, C.I.R.T., Théâtre Forum Meyrin, Genève, Young Vic Theatre, London

This performance was made possible with support by