Berberian Sound Studio at the Donmar Warehouse (2019)

Berberian Sound Studio at the Donmar Warehouse first published by Little White Lies

Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012) is as cinematic – metacinematic, even – as films come. It depends on a particularised grammar of pure cinema (disorienting edits, the collapsing of different spatiotemporal interiors, even dubbing and subtitles) to communicate its mannered story about the post-production making of an Italian horror film (and the unmaking of an English sound engineer) – and its every expression is heavily inflected with the filmic accents of giallo, Italy’s homegrown genre of stylised sadism and slaughter. So the very idea that the film has been adapted into a stage play (currently enjoying a run at the Donmar Warehouse) suggests a radical change in its language. After all, in the film, the filmic medium itself was very much a part of the message. 

That said, even Strickland’s film was already concerned with the processes of linguistic and cultural adaptation, as English mama’s boy Gilderoy (played by Toby Jones) finds himself lost in his latest job in 1970s Italy, and uncertain where – or how willingly – he fits in with the misogyny and mean-spiritedness of his new, alien environs. When in Rome, one should do as the Romans do – but the question remains whether Gilderoy’s archetypically English reserve reflects a genuine resistance to the local licentiousness and chauvinism, or whether it is merely a mask for a man who has long since tasted the forbidden fruit and assimilated to the habits of Italian patriarchy, but who is uncomfortable with admitting (not least to himself) the significant part that he is playing in all the ambient abuse of women.

Conceived for the stage by Joel Horwood and Tom Scutt, and written by Horwood, the theatrical version also plays upon the linguistic isolation of Gilderoy (Tom Brooke), surrounded by Italian that he (and no doubt many of the audience too) struggle to understand. The only other English speakers in the studio are brutish producer Francesco (Enzo Cilenti), sympathetic dubbing artist Sylvia (Lara Rossi) and the film’s director Santini (Luke Pasqualino), and so the already alienated, anal-retentive engineer retreats into his little world of processed and distorted recordings, soon finding his memories from his Dorking home (preserved in tapes sent by his mother) and the moral horror of his current work all merging into a single, confused soundscape. 

We become as immersed as Gilderoy. Even before the play has commenced, the theatre space is filled with a looping babble of Italian voices, as though the audience were chatting away in the Mediterranean rather than in Covent Garden. Similarly, the opening conversation between the newly arrived Gilderoy and the unhelpful receptionist Elena (Eugenia Caruso) takes place entirely offstage, and is presented aurally. As befits a sound studio, here the auditory is everything – and through sound design alone, plus some very impressive live foley work from mute maestri Massimo and Massimo (Tom Espiner, Hemi Yeroham), not only is Santini’s unseen film (called The Equestrian Vortex) conjured, but also the darker scenarios playing out in Gilderoy’s cracking psyche. 

Berberian Sound Studio the play is not – indeed, could not be – the same as the film. Like Gilderoy behind his mixing desk, Horwood has tinkered with the source materials, compressing all Santini’s scenes into one, expanding the dialogue between Gilderoy and Sylvia and altering the ending entirely, while amplifying the original’s themes of oppression, complicity and sacrifice. In an all-new plot line, Gilderoy has been tasked with designing the perfect sonic complement to the film’s climactic sequence, in which Sylvia’s character is heard, but not seen, being tortured to death by an unspecified implement (or perhaps entity) called ‘the indelible kiss’. As he reluctantly noodles with this in his spare time, Gilderoy – ever the suffering artist – starts bleeding into the work and losing his own voice. He becomes what he despises and shows a willingness himself to torment the actresses, all in the service of realising someone else’s sadistic, woman-hating fantasy that also, it would seem, is very much his own.  

The play is set in a closed, oppressive system, bureaucratic and bullying. The stage is Studio 7 of Lot 33, a place of technical behind-the-scenes miracle-working and wizardry, complete with insulated booths for recording and mixing. Even as Gilderoy is tempted into a Faustian pact with his employers and the mutilating atrocities of The Equestrian Vortex start replaying themselves off-screen, he seems unable ever to leave the studio’s confines, his only escape being into a fragile, receding world of audio nostalgia that is rapidly becoming contaminated and recorded over by the traumas of the present. ‘Silenzio’ reads the flashing red light over the engineering booth – and this compromised, conflicted protagonist comes to recognise that his own silence is crucial to the sound of real horror. 

The results, brilliantly staged, and just as hallucinatory as the film, are a sight for sore ears and a real coup de théâtre. Now we just need Strickland’s work adapted into a radio play, with everything reduced to pure sound.

© Anton Bitel