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In with a roar, out with a sigh: The Hush at the Shed, National Theatre

Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated this review here.

With a stunningly creative team at the helm, The Hush should have been an exultant triumph of theatre. Created by master electronic sound artist Matthew Herbert, National Theatre associate director and writer Ben Power and Foley artists Barnaby Smyth and Ruth Sullivan, The Hush included some standout gratifying moments. But I left feeling the concept was grander than the execution. At the Shed, National Theatre.

In its strongest moments, The Hush focuses on allowing Foley artists Barnaby Smyth and Ruth Sullivan to do what they do best: their swimming pool sounds are so effective that I actually feel cooled in the airless little Shed on the hottest day in the last seven years. Other jewels include the gentle sounds of a ship rocking in the night slowly building into a creaking windy gale, the clanking metal and snapping rubber of a hospital ward, and a woman singing to herself in the shower. I also like watching them work, showing us moments that are never normally seen – or rather, moments that are normally displaced by other images.

Director Matthew Herbert tells us in the playbill that “in the theatre, sounds made by audiences are seen almost entirely as the enemy.” By contrast, this production is “an attempt to welcome sound in to the theatre, whatever shape or form it takes.” With that framework I was expecting a much more interactive show, one that made use of the sounds we the audience are (inevitably) making. The way the audience is introduced to the space furthers this impression.

On entry to the Shed we are invited to remove our shoes and place them on the rack at the back of the stage. This prelude invites us to consider what our presence in the space means and how that is changed by shoelessness. For me, it’s a mix of vulnerability and liberation, as we are now captive in the space yet able to connect with it using parts of ourselves we normally keep covered in public.

On entry there is also a neutral female voice welcoming us in, repeating the phrase: “Every sound is being recorded. If you do not wish to be recorded, please remain silent.” It becomes rapidly obvious how impossible utter silence is. In the context of Herbert’s commentary in the playbill, this could be seen as an invitation – or a challenge – to the audience to use that inability to achieve silence for our own ends, to create noise with intention and deliberation.

Perhaps it is just that this particular audience isn’t willing to take up the invitation, but I feel strongly that a lot more could be made of our power to influence the happenings on stage. Given that our sounds are being recorded, I also expect them to come back to us in some form during the evening but that never materialises, at least not in a form I recognise. The intention behind asking the audience to remove our shoes is also unclear, as they play little part in the production. The lighting effects of the shoe rack would be just as effective with prop shoes as with ours, and though the initial feeling of removing them raised intriguing questions, they aren’t followed up once the show starts.

There are the bare outlines of a plot: The Hush is a room entered first by Tobias Menzies, playing his role with a very uptight, controlling, besuited formality. The Hush now appears to be a combination recording studio/therapy session, with the Foley artists and the sound booth one level above but visible to the person in the studio. Menzies ignores these ethereal creatures at first, peremptorily directing them to produce various sounds including road noise, typing, and the meditative crackle of a cigarette smoked by a woman in bed. By contrast, Susannah Wise enters smiling, greets the Foley artists behind their plastic screen, waves to the sound booth, and passively has her sounds – a series of recordings purportedly made by her father – played for her without choosing what they will be.

There are moments of interaction between these two characters during the overlapping time between sessions, with all of the awkwardness and forced intimacy of meeting someone in a doctor’s waiting room. There is humour here, and the potential for something more than a chance encounter. But all of the times that these interactions are going on, I find myself impatient to hear and see more of the Foley artists. That’s not meant as a criticism of Menzies or Wise, who successfully imply rich lives for their characters beyond the booth. Those encounters just don’t seem to have much to do with the evocative power of sound.

I have a soft spot for Foley art: in the bar after the show there was universal agreement in my conversational circle that anyone who doesn’t want to run away from their everyday life and become a Foley artist has no soul. (Though of course that only holds true for people who are not already Foley artists. What they dream of running away to become I cannot imagine.) There is so very much potential for this show to be a breathtaking, immersive, interactive carnival of delights on the power of sound to elicit emotion. I wish I could say that it were that. But as it is, it’s a collection of interesting ideas and some powerful moments which don’t seem to have a strong enough overarching clarity of intention to make a single great story.

Originally reviewed for One Stop Arts on 22 July 2013.