The first thing you see when you walk into the Donmar rehearsal space is a control room taking up the whole of one wall. The actor Enzo Cilenti sits behind glass issuing orders impatiently in a thick Italian accent to three of his co-stars, who are squeezed around a microphone in a smaller booth opposite; one of them, Tom Brooke, the soldier-turned-sniper from the BBC thriller Bodyguard, looks as amusingly bewildered as Beaker from The Muppet Show. Props strewn around the room include an axe, a Tom and Jerry music box and a cabbage with a knife lodged in it. Someone is looking for a misplaced electric toothbrush, though this turns out to be a matter of sound effects rather than dental hygiene. An engineer says, “Let’s put some reverb on that,” while two men relax in chairs nearby. They are wearing caretaker coats and high heels.
Picking his way through this scene in tracksuit bottoms, T-shirt and socks is Tom Scutt, an acclaimed stage designer who has also worked as creative director for Christine and the Queens. Scutt is making his directing debut on this theatrical version of Peter Strickland’s chilling 2012 film Berberian Sound Studio, about a timid analogue recordist named Gilderoy (Toby Jones on screen, Brooke in this version) who travels to Italy in the mid-1970s to record foley for a giallo – one of those florid, operatic chillers where the deaths are almost as painful as the dialogue. Only one cast member, Strickland’s regular collaborator Eugenia Caruso, appears in both play and movie, though she hasn’t brought any reminiscences to the rehearsal room. “There are so many deviations from the film, it would be irrelevant,” explains the writer, Joel Horwood.
Strickland always saw his movie not as horror but as a workplace drama about office politics, and Scutt and Horwood are equally keen to give the h-word a swerve. The in-house DVD library may be heavy on Dario Argento(Suspiria, Tenebrae) but cast and crew can also borrow the documentary Notes on Blindness, or audio-centric thrillers including The Conversationand Blow Out, and the play itself will be accessible to even the greenest giallo-come-lately. Ask Scutt about its influences and it’s like turning on a tap full blast. “We’ve discussed Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, Yorgos Lanthimos and The Archers,” he says. Inevitably for a story steeped in analogue recordings, there are echoes of Krapp’s Last Tape. “It’s Carry On Beckett!”
“We’ve never thought of having to scare people,” he continues. “It’s more about a subliminal atmosphere that permeates the characters’ relationships. There are horrific ideas but it’s deliberately not a gorefest. It relies entirely on the audience’s imagination. You don’t see the film Gilderoy’s working on, and the idea of a piece of theatre where everyone is watching content being made is very interesting. It’s like we’re seeing the wrong bit of the product.” So it’s like a sinister Noises Off? “Yes, there’s that element of farce, too. Booths where people can only hear when they’re plugged in, or can’t see each other. Some characters speak only Italian, Gilderoy only English. It’s about failures of communication in power hierarchies and across gender and language.”
It wasn’t that Scutt went looking for contemporary resonances, more that the play attracted them like knives to a magnet. “I originally wanted to do the show because I was interested in using sound viscerally on stage. Having a sub-bass hitting you in the chest – it’s more like a gig than straight theatre. But then Brexit happened and I thought: ‘Oh, this is about being a Brit in a European country.’ And obviously Trump and Weinstein added all this extra relevance to the play’s story of gendered violence. It just sort of kept rolling.”
The villain of the piece is Santini (Luke Pasqualino), the film director who manipulates and terrorises those beneath him, especially women. “It feels like the right thing to be discussing at this political moment,” explains Horwood. “How and why we make work, why we tell certain stories, what they represent and who gets to be in charge of them.” Scutt gestures to the set behind us: “I mean, look at this: these isolated booths where a man can control the faders on a woman’s voice. It’s exactly where we are in the world at the moment. This is a landscape where women’s voices are harvested and used by men but their actual opinions and feelings are of no interest.”
Back in rehearsal, the lights are now tinted red. Brooke walks over to a table and performs a series of ritualistic actions: removing the knife from the cabbage, he stabs the vegetable again before placing a metal pitcher over a spinning top. The two high-heeled caretakers – Hemi Yeroham and Tom Espiner (who doubles as the production’s foley designer) – are now in the vocal booth, buzzing the toothbrush inside a metal container and winding the music box in excruciating slow-motion. Scutt listens for a moment. “That’s just too creepy.” Then he grins. “It’s brilliant.”