Sound designer Tom Gibbons: ‘I don’t want to get pigeonholed into a certain style of sound’
The award-winning sound designer has carved out a wide-ranging career in theatre, working on some of the most dynamic shows at venues including the Almeida, National Theatre and Young Vic. He talks to Amber Massie-Blomfield about his latest projects, taking creative risks and his ambition to do more musicals and work with Mogwai
It is no accident that sound designer Tom Gibbons has worked on some of the biggest, most dynamic pieces to come out of British theatre in the last few years, according to director and longtime collaborator Robert Icke: “He’s an artist who happens to use sound.” In recent years, Gibbons, whom Icke calls “Gibbo”, has designed the sound on shows including 1984 at the Almeida, People, Places and Things at the National Theatre, and A View from the Bridge and Life of Galileo at the Young Vic.
He has forged a particularly strong bond with Icke – “I treasure him more than I would ever let him know,” the director says – and the pair is currently working on their ninth production together: The Wild Duck at the Almeida.
Their first collaboration was Headlong’s Romeo and Juliet in 2012. Gibbons’ heavy underscoring swiftly became a trademark of many of Icke’s productions, and their collaborations since have included Hamlet and Oresteia at the Almeida and The Red Barn at the National Theatre.
The soundscapes Gibbons creates for Icke often have a filmic quality. “I’ve always felt TV and film does a much better job of using music,” Icke says. “Sometimes I wanted to underscore a show like it was Mission: Impossible. When I met Gibbo, I realised we felt the same way about this.”
Born in north London in 1984, Gibbons was brought up on classical music – “My mum always played me Handel and Bach” – and as a teenager he listened to “big, epic guitar music” like Smashing Pumpkins and Mogwai. Later, he began a music degree at Oxford Brookes, but he says that after a year: “We decided to part ways.”
He didn’t have a great passion for theatre growing up, but after leaving Oxford and moving back home, Gibbons decided to apply to Central School of Speech and Drama “because it was a five-minute walk from my house. I thought the nearest thing they offered to music was theatre sound. I was accepted.”
At drama school, he met Gareth Fry – the sound designer behind productions including Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and The Encounter – who Gibbons cites as one of his greatest inspirations. Fry gave him an early gig as an associate.
Soon after, he landed a job doing the sound design for 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, starring Michelle Terry and Ralf Little, at the Bush. “I did quite a few shows at the Bush when Josie Rourke was still there. Then I did a lot at the Arcola, Paines Plough, the usual kind of route in the first four years.”
A big break came in 2012 when Phyllida Lloyd asked him to do the sound design for Julius Caesar at the Donmar. He amplified the violence of the all-female production with an underscore of deafening heavy metal. He says of the experience: “It was really tough, but I learnt not to be afraid to think creatively when working at that scale. And not be scared to go: ‘Yeah, we went for that idea, and everyone worked very hard at it, but it’s not working so let’s do this instead.’”
In 2014, the Young Vic’s David Lan introduced him to Belgian director Ivo van Hove. The meeting led to what Gibbons calls the biggest production of his career, A View from the Bridge. His design featured huge washes of choral music and unrelenting pulses of drums and thunder, earning him the first of three Olivier nominations in 2015. “It was something I had never really done – the big European underscore thing. The music is very lyrical and dramatic, compared to this really pared-down set. That was certainly a time when I went: ‘Okay this is good, I can find shows that can let me do that.’” They have now worked on four productions together, including Hedda Gabler at the National and The Crucible on Broadway.
Gibbons won the Olivier award the following year for People, Places and Things, which featured a brutal, distorted barrage of sound. “You need to feel like you’ve been through the wringer, like you’ve just been through rehab with this woman. It was our job to make people feel knackered. You may not have enjoyed everything, but you’ve had a fricking experience.”
That visceral sensibility has characterised much of his design. He is fascinated by how sound can work on the audience physically. Take his nerve-shredding, dystopian soundtrack of droning mechanics and electric buzzing for Icke’s 1984, ramped up to nauseating volume. “It’s always about putting the audience outside their comfort zone. Them sitting there going: ‘This is loud, now it’s suddenly got a bit louder, oh shit I’m actually going to have to leave… Oh it’s okay.’ That few seconds at the end of a cue when you think: ‘Oh go on, let’s just push it another couple of decibels, then pull it back.’
“I remember [rock band] Muse at Glastonbury in 2010, the level of power coming from that stage, it was incredible,” he continues. “Why shouldn’t people who go to theatre be able to feel that? Obviously in smaller spaces it’s difficult, but give it a go, you know?”
Q&A: Tom Gibbons
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked at the Roundhouse bar pulling pints – I saw some great gigs.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Sound design on 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover at the Bush. It had Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Ralf Little in it. It also had the lovely lady who runs the Globe, Michelle Terry. It was a comedy show.
What is your next job?
The Madness of King George at Nottingham Playhouse
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
You know nothing, trust me, you know nothing. Honestly, you leave Central thinking: ‘Oh I’ve got a degree, I know exactly what’s going on.’ You do not know – you know nothing.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Either the Scottish band Mogwai, or my three-year-old daughter, Dot. She’s an absolute warrior.
What is your best advice for auditions?
Be nice, don’t lie about stuff you don’t know about. Just don’t be a dick.
If you hadn’t been a sound designer, what would you have been?
I really wanted to be a marine biologist, diving – but I soon worked out I was not good at science. So that wouldn’t have worked out.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I have none.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gibbons’ uncompromising approach can occasionally rile critics. “In reviews I get slightly bated about ‘all this bloody underscoring’,” he says. But it gives the productions he and Icke work on together a contemporary feel that appeals to ‘the Netflix generation’. “People say that like it’s a bad thing. But millions of people watch Netflix every week.”
Another element borrowed from TV and film that he’s unafraid to use – and which produces varied reactions in the audience – is clearly identifiable pop and rock songs: Bob Dylan in Hamlet, Joni Mitchell’s Blue in Hedda Gabler. One of Icke’s favourite examples of Gibbons’ work was his deployment of the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows in Oresteia. “He went away with a friend and they put down every instrument individually: the bass, the drums, the guitar, the French horn, so he could use it bit by bit throughout the show,” Icke explains. “Then by the time you hear the whole song, it feels sort of inevitable.”
Gibbons reveals he was scared to use recognisable songs at first. “I felt you’d hear a song that makes you think of your ex or whatever when actually you should be thinking about The Wild Duck, but I feel that less and less now.” Often the song is chosen by the director, and in the case of Van Hove and Icke, the songs they note down in the script offer Gibbons clues to the direction the sound design might take.
“I like the fact directors can be strong enough to say: ‘Yeah that’s a really stupid, obvious choice, but I’m going to go with it because I think it really works for the show, and I’m not going to bow down to the fact people will find it weird – I’m just going to do my thing’,” Gibbons says. “I love that kind of thinking.”
Not everyone agrees. For Hedda Gabler, the song conceived was Jeff Buckley’s version of Hallelujah. Gibbons says: “Patrick Marber, who did the adaptation, came up to me after the preview and said: ‘Is that seriously staying in the show?’ And I’m like: ‘Yeah.’ And he’s like: ‘I just can’t believe it.’ It’s like putting fricking Wonderwall in a show.”
The Wild Duck will be a departure from the heavy scores of his previous collaborations with Icke. In a lean production exploring the boundaries between truth and lies, elements of theatricality have been stripped back, and a minimalist sound design, featuring a skipping record player, is a key dramaturgical element. “The way Rob and I have worked together on the sound means that we have very few options for the design, but actually those options are really acute. That seems to breed an area of creativity.”
When asked about issues facing sound designers, it is the same facing many in the arts in the UK, and certainly backstage: money. “I’m in a lucky position where I’ve done sound design for shows in Europe now, and in the US, and the money is just better,” he says. “There’s just more money in it. That’s not a direct correlation to quality, but the money is there to pay you properly, and it seems crazy. You’re asking the wrong person about how we can solve that, but all I know is that from where I’m standing, I get paid this amount for this show in the UK, and this amount for this show in Europe. It’s significantly more.”
In February 2019, his latest collaboration with Van Hove, All About Eve, opens, featuring a score composed by PJ Harvey. “It’s so cool to be working with her; unbelievable, really,” Gibbons says. In the future, he’d love to work on a musical: “I feel I get a little pigeonholed into a certain style of sound, but I’d like to do some more musicals. It would be slightly scary for me at first, but I’d be well up for it.”
He also holds out hope of achieving a teenage pipe dream: “I would love to collaborate with Mogwai, all day long,” he says. “I bet they’d write some great music for the stage.”
CV: Tom Gibbons
Born: 1984, London
Training: Royal Central School of Speech and Drama
• Julius Caesar, Donmar Warehouse (2012)
• 1984, Almeida Theatre (2014); Playhouse Theatre (2016)
• A View from the Bridge, Young Vic (2014); Wyndham’s Theatre (2015)
• Oresteia, Almeida (2015)
• Hedda Gabler, National Theatre (2016)
• Hamlet, Almeida Theatre and Harold Pinter Theatre (2017)
• People, Places and Things, National Theatre (2015); Wyndham’s Theatre (2016)
• Olivier award for People, Places and Things (2016)
Agent: Nick Quinn at the Agency
The Wild Duck is at the Almeida Theatre until December 1