Peter Strickland’s 2012 cult film Berberian Sound Studio is a very sensory cinematic experience – aurally and visually disorientating, almost hallucinatory in places – so one can see why Tom Scutt, one of theatre’s best young designers, might have chosen it for his directorial debut.
Scutt has assembled a creative dream team in co-designer Anna Yates, lighting designer Lee Curran and sound designers Ben and Max Ringham to make something that evokes the woozy weirdness of the original while also working surprisingly well on stage.
Tom Brooke plays Gilderoy, a mild-mannered English sound engineer who finds himself employed to create the effects for a horror film at an Italian giallo studio, the kind of place synonymous with the work of directors such as Dario Argento. The film he’s working on, The Equestrian Vortex, turns out to be a florid, gory piece about the torture and killing of young women accused of witchcraft. As the scenes he’s working on become increasingly horrific, the timid Gilderoy’s grip on reality starts to waver.
The creation of Foley sound effects plays a large part in Scutt’s production – twanged duct tape replicates a human heart beating, watermelon innards become wetly sexual – and there’s a bravura sequence in which two sound assistants, both called Massimo (Hemi Yeroham and actual Foley artist Tom Espiner) create a dizzying array of effects using everything from heads of cabbage to high-heeled shoes.
Highly entertaining as this is, there’s a lot more going on here. Making explicit what was only background in the altogether more amorphous film, Joel Horwood’s adaption is eloquent about power and its misuse in the name of art. He homes in on the way women are valued for their bodies – and, in this instance, voices – in the film industry, while being denied creative agency, and how imagery of women being mutilated and murdered are so prevalent in our culture. The character of the film’s suavely sinister director Santini (a memorable stage debut by Luke Pasqualino) encapsulates this. He may talk passionately and persuasively about the artistic merit of his work but he makes it abundantly clear who’s in control. Actor Sylvia (Lara Rossi) raises objections to what she’s being asked to do and is duly written out.
Brooke is astonishingly good. Few people do nervous collapse as well as he does, his eyes darkening as some vital light leaks out. Scutt surrounds him with a predominantly Italian cast, including Eugenia Caruso, who also starred in the film, and voice artist Lore Lixenberg, growling, howling and gargling like Mercedes McCambridge reincarnate.
Scutt’s production is, to the surprise of no one, handsomely designed – the sound booth full of recording paraphernalia, the on-point 1970s costumes – but it’s also genuinely creepy in a way that horror on stage rarely achieves, and unsettling in more ways than one. An impressive debut by any standards.