Review: Berberian Sound Studio at the Donmar Warehouse

Here at Curzon, we’re committed supporters of British filmmaker Peter Strickland. Through Curzon Artificial Eye, we have released all of his films to date, from Kaitlin Varga and The Duke of Burgundy to his latest, soon-to-be-released In Fabric. And, of course, his audio-nightmare, Berberian Sound Studio.

London’s Donmar Warehouse have taken the essence of Strickland’s film, and has transposed it to the stage with tremendously faithful and creative success. We sent the Curzon Film Podcast’s reviewer, Steven Ryder, along to see the new stage show, which plays from 8 February to 30 March. Tickets are available now.


SILENZIO

One word, blood red, flashes in the darkness of the sound studio – “SILENZIO”, it tells us over and over again. Is this an instruction or a warning? A cry for help or a sinister demand? Either way, it is an appropriate beginning for the new theatrical adaptation of Peter Strickland’s 2012 giallo-tinged thriller Berberian Sound Studio, adapted for the stage by writer Joel Horwood and director Tom Scutt. For a film so enamoured with the way sound can play tricks on the mind and drag our imagination into horrific new realms, a stage play seems like a bold and somewhat left field appropriation of this story, but the wildly inventive decisions and wonderfully crafted set pieces allow this production to stand alone as a truly sensorial experience that will thrill audiences both familiar and unaware of the source material.

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The deceptively simple yet severely heightened plot revolves around Gilderoy, a meek, British sound engineer and Foley artist who is brought over to Italy by a megalomaniacal producer/director duo to work on their new, bloodthirsty, sexually aggressive film - The Equestrian Vortex. In the same vein as the original, the audience are never shown any of the film’s murderous content but are instead subjected to extended aural sequences of squelching, cracking and screaming. Lots of screaming. As Gilderoy plunges himself into crafting the film’s finale, the ‘Kiss of Death’, he becomes more confused and concerned with his role in perpetuating such a grotesque design, slowly but surely finding his psyche beginning to unravel.

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Any attempt to cleanly categorise either film or play as simple horror would presumably be met with a similar reaction as when Gilderoy does the same with The Equestrian Vortex (“This is not a horror film…it is a Santini film!”) and, really, Berberian Sound Studio does fall more into the category of experiential theatre. Those unfamiliar with Foley work, this enigmatic and almost concealed aspect of filmmaking, are treated to a raucous display of aural craftsmanship early on in the play as two sound engineers, both named Massimo, prowl the stage with chains, shower curtains, machetes and watermelons. As well as being an intensely hilarious perversion of the senses, it also proves how easy it can be to manipulate an audience into a deep, profound immersion.

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With so much technical virtuosity throughout (not only through the impeccable sound design, but the equally as expressionistic lighting), it is easy to miss the thematic prowess on show. Moving away from the film’s more stylistic throes, Horwood and Scutt aim to untangle the power struggles between gender and the alienation of being a stranger in a strange land, with large portions of the play being acted out in only Italian. Potentially the biggest change from the film is the performance of Tom Brooke, taking over the film’s role from national treasure Toby Jones, giving a much more affable and lively performance, much needed if we are to empathise with his inner turmoil. 

Both film and play show an immense amount of respect for the craft of moviemaking whilst plunging viewers headfirst into a surreal cacophony of fear and anxiety. Spotting the subtle changes between the two mediums is a delight in itself but one constant does remain – when the deafening silence finally arrives, its almost as unsettling as the noise that came before.


The Donmar Warehouse’s production of Berberian Sound Studio plays from 8 February to 30 March.

Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, the film on which this new theatre production is based, is available to watch now on Curzon Home Cinema