A cabbage sits centre stage at the Donmar Warehouse. It’s surrounded by metal chains, a butcher’s trolley and a tin bucket filled with water.
If it wasn’t for the sign that says SILENZIO in big red letters and a small statue of Romulus and Remus, you’d assume you were in some kind of vegetable torture chamber.
In fact, Berberian Sound Studio, rewritten for the stage by Joel Horwood and Tom Scutt, based on Peter Strickland’s original motion picture, is set in a recording studio in Italy. We meet Gilderoy, a weak-chinned, trembling sort of man, who has developed his career in nature documentaries. He’s played brilliantly by Tom Brooke (The Death of Stalin, the Bodyguard), and has been tasked to sound design a horror film, something that’s clearly way out of his comfort zone.
What’s extraordinary about Tom Scutt’s direction is the way everyday objects are manipulated to create the most gruesome sounds (who knew a watermelon sounded like someone being brutally murdered?) The film’s reel plays above the audience, so we never see what the character’s see. In a way this makes it more sinister: we can hear the screams and panicked breathing of the woman who are being brutally murdered, tortured and raped. It’s Gilderoy’s job to find appropriate sounds to convey the brutality.
Over the course of the 1 hour 30 minute play, we watch Gilderoy transform from a man who listens to garden birds and lives with “his mama” to someone who will stop at nothing to get the perfect sounds for a film he initially had ethical doubts about.
The spectre of Mr Santini, whose ‘fantasies’ the film is based on, hangs over the studio. The actors providing the film’s voiceovers, played superbly by Lara Rossi (Sylvia) and Beatrice Scirocchi (Carla), challenge Gilderoy on the film’s content as they translate the script for him, and are keen to meet and question the elusive Santini about his artistic choices.
The play is pacy in all the right places and has plenty of quips and humour to keep the tone light enough. The more dramatic, darker, action is relieved by the Massimo’s, two ‘stooges’ (Sidney Kean and Hemi Yeroham) who use the vegetables and props across stage to create a genuinely hilarious mix of sounds to accompany the show.
Most of all, the production makes us engage. This isn’t a play for the squeamish (you’d be surprised at what a stick of celery being twisted can evoke) or for a passive onlooker. It challenges you to listen, and demands you consider the layers of sound and meaning (yes, it’s a touch meta) that exist in our everyday life.
When Mr Santini (Luke Pasqualino) finally appears, he isn’t at all what previous discussion about the viciously brutal film would have you assume. With his suede slip-on moccasins and chic Italian grooming, he makes sweeping statements like “so long as the art is good, the choices are good”. His appearance feels like another twist to keep you on your toes throughout this fast-paced, thought-provoking and highly-rated show.
Go open-minded, and ready to listen and watch some superb acting, direction and movement. And if you’re sitting on the front row, watch out for the watermelons…
Berberian Sound Studio runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 30th March.
Words by Eleanor Ross