You should come out whistling the set (lights, sound) …

Ian MacNeil's set takes centre stage in the 2009 NT revival of An Inspector Calls. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Ian MacNeil's set takes centre stage in the 2009 NT revival of An Inspector Calls. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Brian Attwood was editor of The Stage from 1994 to 2014.
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Is it a paradox that sound in theatre is something we rarely shout about - unless it’s the inappropriate noise emanating from one or other end of whoever’s in the next seat?

Thanks to the inspired suggestion of my fellow columnist Honour Bayes we should redress the balance a little in our forthcoming piece on Let the Right One In.

The intended focus is sound designer Gareth Fry. He should need no introduction but here’s a snatch: Olympics opener in 2012, chair of the new Association of Sound Designers, Olivier in 2009 (Black Watch), an Australian Helpmann award in 2008 (BW again), Olivier in 2007 (Waves).

[pullquote]There’s an old saying most of us know, to the effect that you shouldn’t come out of a show whistling the set. In other words the technical contributions should function as the unsung heroes. I beg to differ.[/pullquote]

Is it fair to suggest that some productions are more dependent upon others for sound artists (yes, artists) of vision? To be honest, yes and the stage adaptation of what is a cult classic of a film is certainly one of them. It’s about creating depth, dimension and suggestion – a vital tool when you can’t cut and edit.

There’s an old saying most of us know, to the effect that you shouldn’t come out of a show whistling the set. In other words the technical contributions should function as the unsung heroes – they do what they do without the audience realising or appreciating them. And if you do notice them, something’s wrong.

I beg to differ.

Each time this issue comes up I think back to my reluctant encounter many, many years ago with Stephen Daldry’s An Inspector Calls, a play I’d become inured to after countless amdram versions had ripped the soul from it. And then I saw Ian McNeil’s genius of a set that eradicated years of Priestley-lite at a glance (read what Aleks Sierz has to say on the subject here).

More recently, we have seen one of the most remarkable syntheses of sound, light and set in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As I’ve said previously, the subject matter is close to my heart anyway but put that aside: it is the technical and artistic achievement we should acknowledge, interweaving three elements that are each realised brilliantly.

Together they enable us as much as we can to inhabit rather than simply observe Christopher’s world view.

Yes, it’s also down to the talents of Mark Haddon, Simon Stephens, Marianne Elliott, Luke Treadaway and co. Yet the three of its seven Oliviers that cheered me most were those won by Paule Constable (lighting), Bunny Christie and Finn Ross (set design) and Ian Dickinson and Adrian Sutton (sound design).

Pure genius you can’t put into words.

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