Berberian Sound Studio live on stage at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden

I have watched Berberian Sound Studio on DVD several times – cohabiting with an Italophile AV technician led the film towards me naturally. Both the film and its soundtrack have become a code word for everyone interested in foley art and sound creation and is further well known among the fans of Italian horror director Dario Argento. The film stars Toby Jones who plays Surrey sound engineer Gilderoy, travelling to remote 1970s Italy for an editing job on what turns out to be a horror film.

We almost missed the theatre entrance in busy Covent Garden

Adapting this 2012 film for the stage is a very exciting idea and an excellent reason for a first visit to the Donmar Warehouse. When arriving I am surprised how well embedded this theatre in its Covent Garden surroundings – I know most of the bars and restaurants around it and must have passed it several times.

The warehouse conversion leads us through several short flights of stairs to our seats in the Circle. We look down to the front of the stage from the second of two rows. There are more rows to the sides. On stage a sound cabin is already visible, with a glass wall and a Silencio sign and we admire the set up of tape reels and other beautiful mechanical apparatuses for analogue recordings. Then the play starts and the first impression is someone’s breath behind us – as we do not have further rows behind us these are ticketed standing spaces and filled by people who lean close to you, with their drink and sweets. Thankfully it will not turn out to be a problem, even with no interval tonight.

Great seats indeed – standing tickets directly behind us

Gilderoy arrives in a country full of loud eccentrics with wild gestures and lush food. His British reserve and personal priority to hand in an expense report when arriving is amusing in the beginning but then annoying almost turning into a Mr Bean-like parody of English quirks. The audience finds it funny though. Most people at the sound studio speak at least some English which does not stop them from ignoring Gilderoy’s presence when not talking to him directly and continuing in their native tongue. Quickly the Italians take him up on his weakness for little biscuits and tea and he seems to be part of the team. The film they are acoustically furbishing together though is an occult orgy of misogynistic violence and horror. Its splatter, torture and murder scenes require whole symphonies of sound effects: For authentic effects whole routines of water melon chopping, sponge drowning, and chain clanking are recorded.

But then the key voice artist refuses to continue promoting this sexist nightmare. There is no reason to spread the director’s sick fantasies, she claims, him making up perversions is bad enough. Gilderoy sees her point but then meets the director in person – taken by his arty eloquence he decides to make this the best post sound production ever…

Without giving too much away, here is where play and film differ. Which one is the more believable ending? Both are unsettling and the viewer is challenged to decide between trash arthouse and exploitation. Everyone with Italophilia (and who is not?) will get their fix tonight. I am amazed how much Italian I understand despite the purposeful non-existence of translations. The lack of an interval does thankfully not interrupt the flow of the story either. But I had come for the noise creation, for witnessing leeks being beheaded and much more demonstrations of sounds being made. As important the social comment was – there could have been a lot more of that.

Let’s rewatch the film after seeing the stage production

Written by Peter Strickland, adapted by Joel Hoelwood and Tom Scutt.

**** out of 5 stars

Sound Design and Composition by Ben and Max Ringham, Foley Design by Tom Espiner.

Berberian Sound Studio played at the Donmar Warehouse until March 30th.

We paid £30 for each ticket: Circle B28 and B29.

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