In my mind’s eye, this review is a soundscape. Unfortunately, I lack the time, skill and technical equipment to produce such a thing. I have to substitute words for Berberian Sound Studio’s collage of sounds and images; words slip, skating over the surface. You’ll just have to imagine what it would be like translated into abstract sound. Berberian Sound Studio asks its audience to do a lot of imagining too.
What is the sound of fear? This is the question that Gilderoy, a sound engineer from Dorking, Surrey, is trying to answer when he comes to Italy to design the soundtrack for the mysterious, visionary director Santini’s latest film. Gilderoy, who has spent his career sound-designing nature documentaries, thinks he’s been asked to help make a film about horses. However, he soon discovers that, though the film has an equestrian element, it’s a basically pornographic horror film about two young women, accused of witchcraft, being tortured to death. Tom Brooke plays Gilderoy with an endearing humour, helped by his seemingly-unlimited range of facial expressions. Over the course of the performance, the type of the genial Englishman abroad is powerfully broken down by Gilderoy’s psychological disintegration.
The film they are making is a Giallo, which film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas defines in the programme as ‘sex-and-violence drenched horror/ mystery films marked by frequently baroque aesthetics’. These films are fascinated, Heller-Nicholas writes, ‘with the intersection – and frequently collapse – of the categories of “art” and “reality”.’ Peter Strickland’s 2011 film, Berberian Sound Studio, is both a story about the making of a Giallo, and a Giallo itself. The boundaries between what is real and what is art in Joel Horwood and Tom Scutt’s stage version are similarly blurry. There are several jump scares and the violence of the play escalates following the bone-deep structure of horror films, as the division between the film-within-a-play and the play become less clear.
In Scutt’s Berberian Sound Studio, we never actually see the film they are making. It is conveyed by a wide beam of dusty, shifting coloured light (designed by Lee Curran), directing our attention to an invisible projection screen at the backwall of the auditorium. The possible violent, sexual and melodramatic content of the film is suggested by the two actresses’ repeated takes of a scene, played in Italian, in which one is required to give a bloodcurdling scream. The film’s in-house Foley artists, Massimo and Massimo (Tom Espiner, who also designed the Foley, and Hemi Yeroham) evoke the film’s thematic preoccupations in a virtuosic sequence, violently scooping out the flesh of a watermelon and butchering a cabbage with an axe.
While the attention paid to sound (composed and designed by Ben and Max Ringham) in the production makes it unusual, Berberian Sound Studio is as strongly visual as it is aural (perhaps no surprise given that Tom Scutt is primarily a designer). Espiner and Yeroham’s Foley display is a spectacle. A double act in brown lab coats, they are putting on a show in demonstrating an anachronistic art form. The visual exuberance of this auditory cornucopia seems to contrast with the rest of the scenography: the recording studio and sound booth are rendered with painstaking realism in Anna Yates and Tom Scutt’s design, a sign calling ‘Silenzio’ glowing red above the studio.
Yet the production is also interested in exploring what makes something a realistic theatrical illusion. Part of the pleasure of watching Foley is being conscious of the gap between how the sound is produced (for example, a carrot being cut with pliers) and what the sound is used to represent (a thumb being broken in thumb screws). What does it mean for sound to be mimetic? At the scariest moment of the film, sound is unmoored from its referent and means of production to become a free-floating signifier – Gilderoy’s recording of his Mum spilling tea over herself becomes a terrifying monster. Is it so effective because an element of real pain has gone into creating the sound? By staging the production of sound effects, Berberian Sound Studio is able to expose the power dynamics that go into the creation of these visions of reality, the ideology behind the moving image.
Because in Santini’s studio, women are exploited. The actress Sylvia (Lara Rossi) is pressured to record repeated takes of her screaming, although she has been told by a doctor that it harms her throat. Later, Gilderoy tortures the other actress Carla (Beatrice Scirocchi) with a terrifying soundtrack, telling her that he wants the scream to be real, not acting. In a sense though, all the screams heard in the play are real; they are produced by real people, from real voice boxes, taking a real toll on real throats. Recording technology alienates the actresses’ voices from their bodies: the actresses employed to voice the characters in the film are different from the ones who played them onscreen; Sylvia, who challenges Santini on his treatment of women in the script, is easily replaced by Carla. In Santini’s film, the actresses are seen as voices, not as people.
Throughout, Gilderoy gathers and collages sounds from life to transform into art on his recording box: an actress’s cough, his mother’s messages from home. At an almost imperceptible point, Gilderoy’s gathering becomes exploitative. Great art must be separate from ethics, Santini tells Gilderoy. Berberian Sound Studio seems to suggest that, as art is inextricable from the real, it also cannot be separated from ethics.
Berberian Sound Studio is on at the Donmar until 30th March. More info here.