The Theatreguide.London Review
Berberian Sound Studio
Donmar Warehouse Spring 2019
Joel Horwood (writer) and Tom Scutt's theatre adaptation of Peter Strickland's screenplay for the film Berberian Sound Studio is a designer's dream and I'm not just talking about the sound.
Lee Curran's lighting design is a twilight zone of shadows, occasional unsettling reds and sudden scary darkness.
Visually there are scenes you could pluck from the show and entertain your friends with for hours. The audience gasped in astonishment as the characters Massimo (Tom Espiner) and Massimo (Hemi Yeroham) gave a remarkable illustration of the Foley art of adding sounds to a gory horror film by such methods as hacking into marrows and crunching sticks.
But of course Tom Scutt, being a very skilled sound designer working for the first time as director, makes very special use of sound in a play about the corrupting exploitative effects of a 1970s Italian Giallo horror film.
And he doesn't make the mistake of making it all design and no content. He and Joel Horwood give us plenty to remind us of the politics.
The 1970s was a polarised period of Second Wave feminism challenging old standards, and with it came a brutal reaction that found its way into slasher films that delighted in showing women being mutilated in screaming terror.
The sinister if charming film director Santini (Luke Pasqualino) is one of these and he wants the innocent Gilderoy (Tom Brooke) from England who produced the impressive sound for a nature film to design the soundtrack for his film in which a woman we never see is horribly tortured by priests.
Women in Santini's world are just objects to be mixed and matched, a body on screen with another woman's voice dubbed over the top. As the actor Sylvia ( Lara Rossi) points out to Gilderoy when he keeps mixing up their names, 'I'm the voice...she's the body...Just think of us as microphones.'
Sylvia is also the voice of the future, a woman who objects to the set-up and tries to stir Gilderoy's conscience about what is being done.
When they are trying to get her to scream for the screen, she argues that'“silence is the sound of real fear.' That is the way it was for years when women would be warned, in the words of Erin Pizzey's book, to 'Scream quietly or the neighbours will hear.'
Gilderoy's line manager in the studio warns him to watch out for Sylvia – 'there's poison in her tits.'
And in response to Gilderoy's barely expressed concern over ethics, Santini tells him 'If the art is okay, then the ethics are okay.'
It's the justification down the ages of those who put some private dead thing whether they call it art or profit before human welfare.
Gilderoy is soon subjecting the actor Carla (Beatrice Scirocchi) without consent to excruciating pain to get a real scream. And when his mother sends him an audio tape message in which she coughs we momentarily think his serious expression is one of concern only to find him slowing down the sound of the cough and mixing it into his collection of sounds to accompany the horror film.
This is a very fine 95 minute trip into the the disturbing reaches of an appalling film culture that in some ways is still with us. And though I began with a scepticism about a play with such a focus on design I could not fault the substance of the play's argument.
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