Donmar Warehouse, London – until 30 March 2019
Berberian Sound Studio is a stage version of the 2012 film, about a repressed English sound engineer whose documentaries about rutting deer on Box Hill and the South Downs get him a gig in Rome, working on torture scenes in a Italian giallo horror production. Peter Strickland’s film was curious and strange, heavy on atmosphere, light on events and hard to forget. It is easy to see why a film set mainly in a recording studio is so suited to the stage and Tom Scutt has created a beautifully balanced and unusual piece of theatre.
The production values are a delight. Scutt, also a designer, has created with Anna Yates a loving tribute to 1970s analogue technology, with a full-sized sound booth dominating the stage, all dark wood, tape reels and chrome switches. The sound team are dubbing a film directed by the legendary director Santini, and they gaze over the heads of the audience towards a supposed projection on the back wall. We never see any film, but we hear everything and the sound design is a world in itself. Ben and Max Ringham create a pin-sharp soundscape in which the texture of a scream, analysed over and over, becomes compelling and thoroughly disturbing.
The casting of Tom Brooke, whose excellent stage work has often been in supporting roles, as the main character Gilderoy is a fine choice. His inability to cross the gulf between his life in Surrey with his mother and tape machines and the Gothic world of giallo is delivered with excruciating awkwardness. The play switches between moods in a disconcerting fashion from frustration and menace to choreographed comedy. Some of the best moments come when the two foley artists, Massimo and Massimo, perform increasingly elaborate sequences to accompany the film we cannot see – walking in high heels, splashing in buckets, wielding axes and chopping cabbages, all without a word.
As a sequential plot, Berberian Sound Studio doesn’t really go anywhere in particular, and this seems entirely natural, and an attempt in the dying moments to provide explanation and closure seems unneccessary. The enclosed world of the sound stage filters the outside world, allowing Gilderoy to edit and balance reality to fit the fiction.
Hints creep in of what is happening back in Surrey through his mother’s taped messages, in which the fate of a chiff chaff nest implies horror off screen, while the studio becomes a torture chamber of its own. In the end though, the sound of Gilderoy snapping celery seems more terrifying than the breaking bones it seems to represent. Scutt’s production draws the audience into its world, and keeps them there, listening.