Perhaps it’s the weather but The Hush was the second show I’d seen in a week where I was asked to remove my shoes. In this heat, it was a blessed relief. Placing them on them on a shelf that sits opposite the Shed’s apron audience configuration, memories of performances past came flooding back and I felt a sudden pang of anxiety. What if the actors are going to do something with my shoes, like Ontroerend Goed’s Audience, trying them on, taking the piss? Surely not! Not at the National! From the moment Tobias Menzies comes on stage though, talking into his phone, as if under his breath, I know it isn’t going to be that kind of show.
What I was being asked to do, in fact, was to shift the triggers to my memory from the visual to the aural. As soon as he gets off the phone, Menzies starts to give sound queues: the foyer, the South Bank, in the most basic way possible tracing our journey into the space. We are hearing the sounds of the spaces we have passed through. Five or ten minutes ago, those would have been our voices, our footsteps. The cues then move to different central London streets, places Menzies (or the character he is playing) seems to know very well. Later he is trying to recreate the sound of a particular moment: a cigarette, bedclothes, a laptop… In his knowledge of the material, his omnipotence, he seems to be the representation of Herbert on stage: the designer/conductor/director. A Prospero in the sonic world of The Hush. His Ariel and Caliban are the two Foley artists on the mezzanine above the shelves of shoes: Smyth and Sullivan. They are fascinating to watch not just because they reveal the mechanics by which elements of the sound is created but because there is no sense that they are concerned with being watched. For all his pedantry about sound, Menzies is very clearly an actor: deliberate, present, always watchable and aware of his watchability in his Hugo Boss suit.
Suzannah Wise is a visitor to the space Menzies commands. When she enters, she is welcomed to The Hush. She is there not to create but to receive. Her father (the degree of fiction is never explicit) has made a recording for her and she has come here to hear it. We read in between the lines, of course, the physical absence of the father, the attempt to keep his own memories alive through his daughter. There’s delight to begin with as she recognises the sounds of the field behind her childhood home. Later, as we go further back into the father’s own past, the recording takes a more sinister, disturbing turn.
The Hush presents us with sounds that are drawn from the characters’ memories and possibly from the actors’ memories too (they use their own names so it’s possible that they drew on personal experience to create the content of the piece). In the space between them and those sounds, it is up to us in the audience to fill in what we choose to from our own memories, from the connections that we can make from the few indicators we do have. How significant, for example, is Wise’s family background to the significance of the sounds of guards’ boots and trains? Does it help or hinder the narrative that emerges for us knowing anything about that? Is that definitely what I heard?
It’s a fascinating experiment in minimalism, certainly, and every aspect of the production is of the highest quality, as are both Menzies and Wise’s performances. The piece makes very specific demands on its audience: come to it because it will not come to you. While the investigation of sound as container of memory is a fascinating and important one, The Hush can feel like a conversation between highly skilled practitioners, to which the presence of the audience is incidental. We can burrow our way into it at times if we try hard enough but really we’ll always be outsiders.