Donmar Warehouse, London – until 30 March 2019
As chilling as it is fascinating, Tom Scutt’s production is an effective slow-burner that captures the audience’s attention as much as their imagination.
Based on the 2012 film by Peter Strickland, Berberian Sound Studio feels less like the horror film than a psychological drama that plays out beautifully well on the Donmar Warehouse’s stage.
For those who like me who normally avoid anything relatively creepy, Berberian Sound Studio sees sound engineer Gilderoy arriving at a sound studio in Italy ready to start work on a new film by director Santini. What he doesn’t realise initially is that the film is actually an increasingly disturbing horror. But soon he becomes obsessed with creating the perfect sound to a series of increasingly violent scenes.
What makes Tom Scutt’s directorial debut so effective is the way in which the focus is predominantly on the sound, capturing the power that it has on creating the atmosphere and how the audience reacts to things. This is shown consistently from the brilliant opening scene in which Massimo (Tom Espiner) and Massimo (Hemi Yeroham) re-create sounds using a variety of technique, all the way through to the way in which Gilderoy (Tom Brooke) tweaks voice recordings to suit his purpose. It leaves the audience with a whole new appreciation for sound design and its importance.
With that in mind, it is fair to say that Ben and Max Ringham’s own composition and sound design is suitably sinister and atmospheric, sending chills down the audience’s spines at the appropriate moments to full effect. It surrounds us and allows us to use our imagination vividly to keep us fully engaged at all times.
This is not really a visual experience, but Lee Curran’s striking lighting captures and focuses on Gilderoy’s descent into obsession and the blur between reality and the film that he is working on enhances the feeling of oppression and intensity. By keeping the staging itself simple, Scutt’s production allows the eeriness and subtlety of the story to shine through – without requiring any visuals of violence.
Tom Brooke as Gilderoy brilliantly brings the character to life – you get to see the glimpse of what he is to become from the beginning as he enters as an awkward, uptight and naive character who is easily prayed upon and easily manipulated into this film he is working on. It is a by turns a vulnerable (when he is listening to his mother’s recordings) and engaging performance that slowly builds in intensity as his obsession grows. Elsewhere there is strong support from Enzo Clienti as the intensely passionate Francesco, Lara Rossi as opinionated and challenging Sylvia and Luke Pasqualini as the charming but manipulative Santini – all enhancing the story perfectly.
Subtle, atmospheric and imaginative, Berberian Sound Studio is a production that lingers in the mind long after the show has finished. It is not scary in the traditional sense (big relief), but it does offer plenty of shivers down the spine as the audience comes to realise just how easy it is to blur the line between reality and a work of art.
By Emma Clarendon
Berberian Sound Studio continues to play at the Donmar Warehouse until the 30th March.