Berberian Sound Studio was a very fine 2012 horror film made by Peter Strickland. Set in the seventies, Toby Jones starred as Gilderoy, a sound mixer who has been employed to work on an Italian film called The Equestrian Vortex. He believes that he was employed because of his sound recording and mixing on a documentary about wildlife around Box Hill in Surrey.
The Equestrian Vortex, is of course a “giallo” movie – a slasher horror film from the seventies, and Gilderoy begins to feel ever more uncomfortable as he understands what he’s working on.
Now the Donmar Warehouse is showing an adaption by Joel Horwood and director Tom Scutt. The story is broadly speaking the same, with Tom Brooke playing the reserved Gilderoy, arriving in a new country, with no understanding of the language. The play keeps the action within the confines of the studio where Gilderoy will be working. As with the original film, a projector booth screens footage from the film that the audience will never see. Instead, we hear only the post-dubbing sound. Many films of the period were indeed shot with the sound completely replaced in post.
In Berberian Sound Studio, actresses including Sylvia (Lara Rossi) dub the voices while two foley effects men, both called Massimo – ‘that’ll be easy to remember’ – rush around adding physical sound effects, often to great comic effect.
Gilderoy’s prized possession is his Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder, with which he is able to conjour a soundscape for the film, as well as listen to audio tapes sent from his mother who he lives with back at home.
The sense of alienation of Gilderoy begins to affect him. A lack of comprehension with his colleagues, the long hours he spends in the studio working, the need to work faster than he’s used to, and the weight of the film that they’re working on – including the uncertainty about how the film should end.
Brooke conveys this really well, beginning as a comic figure out of his depth, before the madness begins to envelop him. The sound design and music by Ben and Max Ringham is absolutely superb – elements seem to be being done live, while other aspects are pre-recorded. Either way, the mixing works really well and creates a disturbing atmosphere.
The set is a thing of beauty too – a small voice booth in one corner where the actresses have to scream (or not), and a production desk with faders and reel to reel recorders that give a great sense of location.
The production works well in the confines of the Donmar – the claustrophobia of the piece, which plays out uninterrupted for 90 minutes or so, compounded by the size of the room. It’s a great transition from screen to stage.[Interesting sidenote: this is an example of podcast advertising working! Despite being on the Donmar’s mailing list, it was only hearing a podcast ad on Mark Kermode’s podcast that got me to buy tickets. It just shows how well a tightly targeted campaign can work.]