Stage Door Review

London, GBR: Berberian Sound Studio

Monday, February 25, 2019

✭✭✭✭✭

by Joel Horwood, directed by Tom Scutt 

Donmar Warehouse, London, GBR

February 14-March 30, 2019

Sylvia: “Silence is the sound of real fear”

Berberian Sound Studio, currently playing at the Donmar Warehouse, is an exceedingly unusual play. It begins as a genuinely amusing comedy but gradually morphs into a deeply disturbing horror story with significant implications about the nature of art and men’s view of women. It is based on the 2012 British horror movie of the same name by British director Peter Strickland, but knowledge of Strickland’s film, which never went into wide release, is not necessary to appreciate the play. In fact, few people will feel the need to seek out Strickland’s film after seeing this immaculately acted, directed and designed stage adaptation.

The story set in Italy in the 1970s concerns meek, unworldly sound designer Gilderoy (Tom Brooke), who has been asked to come to Italy by the famous director Santini (Luke Pasqualino) to work on his latest film. Gilderoy has previously only worked on sound for nature documentaries. He lives in Dorking where he cares for his mother who is gradually going blind. Since she can no longer write letters she sends him tapes of her voice instead. 

Gilderoy is so naive he assumes from the title of Santini’s film, Il vortice equestre, that it is a film about horses. Once he sees clips of the film in the studio in Italy, he is deeply troubled to realize that it is a particularly brutal giallo, a type of Italian horror movie involving sex and violence with a focus especially on violence against women. Gilderoy thinks he can merely focus on doing his job and leave, but after hearing privately from Sylvia (Lara Rossi) and Carla (Beatrice Scirocchi) who dub the voices of the two main female characters, he wonders if morally he can continue working on the film at all.

The two women think that Santini is merely using film to share his sick fantasies about women with the world. It doesn’t help matters that at work Francesco (Enzo Cilenti), the production manager, takes such an abusive tone toward the women. Sylvia has developed a cough and cannot scream on cue without descending into a coughing fit. By contract the lead actor of the film allows only Sylvia to dub her, yet Francesco brutally criticizes Sylvia for her cough and won’t allow her time to recover from it. 

Risking Francesco’s displeasure, Gilderoy sides with the women, but he has to face the peculiar fact that Santini has asked specifically for him after seeing one of his nature documentaries. Not only that, Santini claims that Gilderoy is the only sound designer who can realize the sound for the climax of the film in which a naked woman, thought to be a witch, is tortured to death by monks using a device called “il bacio indelibile” (“the indelible kiss”). What the “bacio indelibile” actually is and what it does, Santini leaves entirely to Gilderoy’s imagination, thus forcing him to be even more deeply complicit in a morally dubious film.

In his single scene Santini claims that his film is not a horror movie but art and that art has to probe mankind’s inhumanity in order to discover the limits of mankind’s humanity. This is only one of the innumerable aesthetic and ethical ramifications that writer Joel Horwood draws from Gilderoy’s situation. When does art become exploitation? The women in Santini’s films exist to be horrifically tortured and killed. The female dubbing artists Gilderoy works with are treated as second class citizens although their work is essential. In the Italian movie tradition only the actors on screen receive credits; those who dub them receive none.

Speaking with Gilderoy, Sylvia, who is not Italian, reveals that the notion of people screaming to express fear is a cliché. When her home country, which no longer exists, was invaded, she experienced real fear and tells Gilderoy the insight she gained: “Silence is the sound of real fear”.

Santini’s strange notion that the sound he seeks for the climax will be all about Gilderoy rather than about him, sets Gilderoy into a frenzy of experimentation. Earlier in the play we have enjoyed seeing the two Foley artists Massimo and Massimo (Tom Espiner and Hemi Yeroham) use all sorts of innocuous devices to create the sounds for the film. Later, knowing what these sounds are meant to represent, these sounds, meaningless in themselves, becomes horrifying given their context. Knowing that the two characters the dubbing artists voice are tortured makes hearing carrots and celery sticks snap sound unnerving and when Gilderoy twists a celery stick until is breaks, the sound is almost unbearable. The play thus asks one of the most fundamental questions about sound, namely when does a sound mean something and why?

Further than this, we find to our dismay that Gilderoy when pushed by Francesco and Santini shares their obsessiveness. Gilderoy has a special box that carries cassette tapes of sounds he has gathered over the years. Nominally to help out Sylvia, Gilderoy tries to cause Carla to produce the most authentic scream she can. To do this, Gilderoy has Carla wear headphones through which he will play various sounds. We never hear what these sounds are but they eventually cause Carla to produce an absolutely hair-raising scream and to regard Gilderoy as if he has violated her. And indeed he has. Outraged we sadly are forced to realize that Gilderoy, who we had regarded as so innocent, has aurally tortured Carla to obtain the sound he wanted. And there is a more disturbing revelation to come which will have to remain secret.

In her illuminating essay in the programme about the giallo, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas discusses the fact that for all their imagery of horror a constant of the giallo is the blurring of the lines of reality and fiction. That is exactly what happens in Horwood’s stage adaptation. When Gilderoy enters the studio, the two Massimos make all the sounds of his walking and entering using their Foley equipment. At the time we think this is merely a clever way to introduce a place about sounds and sound production. Later, however, the two Massimos produce more sounds to accompany the stage action. We now have to reassess what it is exactly that we are watching on stage. It is clearly not merely a play. Rather, it is a stage play of a film about an Englishman called to Italy to make sounds for a film that eventually drives him mad. The final scene of the play reveals that there is even a further metatheatrical level that surrounds even the outermost of this complex set of nesting boxes of genres. 

In his first-ever directorial endeavour famed designer Tom Scutt wisely follows Strickland’s film in never showing us one image from Santini’s movie. This places the entire emphasis of the play on the nature of sound, who is allowed to make sounds and who is allowed to give voice to others. We see the projector’s light flickering at the very top of the back wall of Anna Yates and Tom Scutt’s meticulously recreated 1971 sound stage, but we appreciate what is shown only by what we hear and by the physical reactions of the characters as they watch the film. 

It is hard to believe that any cast anywhere could equal the one that Scutt has assembled for the Donmar production. A major criterion is that virtually the entire cast has to be bilingual in English and Italian. Beyond that certain characters have to be clearly differentiated in their ability to speak and understand English. Santini has the best command of all the Italians, with Sylvia and Francesco following in that order. Carla has very little English be she can make herself understood to us even if the slightly dense Gilderoy does not catch on to what she says. This clash of languages is just one more expression in the play of inquiry into how and why sounds have meaning.

The performances are flawless. Tom Brooke begins his Gilderoy as a merely a semi-comic fish-out-of-water Englishman. Gradually, however, what we had put down to his English reticence become an intentional silence of protest against the unbearable situation he finds himself in. Brooke is such a fine actor that he seems sometimes to communicate more through these silences than through his fragments of speech.

Lara Rossi is immediately sympathetic as Sylvia. The intelligence and insight Rossi brings out in Sylvia make us see that this is a woman whose status as a woman and an immigrant has held her back from realizing her full potential. Beatrice Scirocchi is a fine foil to Rossi’s Sylvia as Carla, who we sense is working to the limits of her abilities. That judgement, however, does not make us discount her fear of Santini.

As Francesco, Enzo Cilenti begins playing his character as almost comically exasperated but as the play darkens we see that his attitude towards is coworkers, and especially the women, is actively belligerent and obnoxious. In extreme contrast to Francesco is the suave Santini of Luke Pasqualino, who incredibly is making his stage debut. In the masterful scene between Santini and Gilderoy, Pasqualino shows Santini slyly playing mind games with an Englishman unequipped to handle them and even flirting with Gilderoy either to intimidate the staid Gilderoy or to ridicule him or both.

Strickland named the sound sound studio in his film after the famous voice artist Cathy Berberian (1925-83). To bring this reference to life, the cast of the play also includes voice artist Loré Lixenberg. In her single scene she gives a fantastic demonstration of her vocal prowess and the myriad, almost extraterrestrial sounds she is able to produce. She does this from the dubbing booth as if it were part of the film, but gradually we realize that there is nothing we can visualize that matches her incredible cascades of sound. This episode illustrating sound for its own sake, of sound itself as art, helps place into context both of the play’s themes of the nature of art and the of the meaning of sound.

Berberian Sound Studio is a play like no other and will have you discovering ever more meaning in it the more you contemplate it. When Strickland made his film in 2012, he likely was most interested in the confusion of art and reality that the giallo plays upon. In 2019, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, it’s impossible not to see a political aspect in the play about the exploitation of women both in film and in work and the horrid discovery that Gilderoy makes about himself that he is not as different from the obvious villains of the piece as he supposed. This is a brilliant play about the fundamentals of theatre – meaning and representation – and any true theatre-lover should experience the multiple challenges it offers. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Beatrice Scirocchi as Carla; Tom Brooke as Gilderoy and Lara Rossi as Sylvia; Enzo Cilenti as Francesco. © 2019 Marc Brenner. 

For tickets, visit www.donmarwarehouse.com.