Donmar Warehouse, London – until 30 March 2019
I’ve never seen Peter Strickland’s 2012 film of Berberian Sound Studio, so I didn’t really know what to expect from this stage adaptation which has opened at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Gilderoy (an excellent Tom Brooke) is an English sound designer, described as a genius of the ears, and summoned to Italy to work with enigmatic director Santini, darling of the 1970s cult slasher or ‘Giallo’ genre.
Tasked to discover the illusive indelible kiss finale, demanded by Santini, it isn’t long before Gilderoy’s prudish, homespun naivety gives way to something much more sinister and horrific, and he descends into a hell of murderous sound effects and general all-round supernatural nastiness.
Adapter Joel Harwood and director Tom Scutt have wisely spattered plenty of black comedy throughout their superbly tense production. It is a delight to watch the first choreographed sound-to-picture Foley sequence, where studio assistants, both named Massimo, gleefully create graphic screen violence by mutilating melons, snapping leeks and impaling cabbages. It cleverly lulls the audience into a false sense of security – little do we know what follows.
The terrific supporting cast delight in creating a claustrophobic world where power is very much the male premise, and women objectified and fetishised – on and off-screen. Studio manager Francesco (Enzo Cilenti) orchestrates the madness and has some very funny un-PC lines: “Be careful of that one, there’s poison in those tits of hers.”
The panting and screaming by Sylvia (Lara Rossi) and Carla (Beatrice Scirocchi) create the fictionalised, on-screen victims – or are they pretend? There are rumours afoot concerning the auteur. This ambitious production, with excellent design by Scutt and Anna Yates, is genuinely terrifying in places. A sequence where Lore Lixenberg creates an almost Excorcist-like sound scape had me grateful she was locked in a sound booth. I almost made a bolt for the exit doors when she slapped against the glass windows.
In fact this unnerving production is so successful in giving an immersive experience that one audience member in front of me spent most of the final twenty minutes with her fingers in front of her eyes.
There were quite a few shrieks from other theatre-goers and I personally won’t be able to look at garden tools in the same way again.
Santini, (a slick Luke Pasqualino) with coat draped over his shoulders, slacks and a black polo neck, is every inch the Italian film director.
“So long as the art is good – the ethics are good.” Therein lies the central premise of the piece – the lengths the artist is prepared to go, to suffer, or in this case to inflict suffering, in the pursuit of their art.
The Donmar has arguably come up with ninety minutes of the scariest theatre I’ve seen.
Berberian Sound Studio runs at the Donmar Warehouse until March 30.
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