The Hush, National Theatre Shed, London – review

Many of us live our lives plugged into sound – just glance around any commuter train. And yet this capacity to capture or recreate live sound – be it music or soundtrack – is comparatively recent. As Matthew Herbert points out in the programme for The Hush, we have no recordings of the French Revolution. With this in mind, Herbert, a composer, DJ and sound designer, and Ben Power, associate director of the National Theatre, have composed this 50-minute meditation on sound and memory, encouraging us to listen acutely and consider the way sound, reality and imagination intertwine.

They are not the only creative team to concentrate on noise. The theatre company Sound&Fury have performed in the dark, using brilliantly placed sound effects to tell the story. Herbert and Power, however, take a more contemplative approach, stripping away text and relying mostly on sound effects to speak.

They create a sound-studio that operates as a sort of therapy room for two characters. The man (Tobias Menzies) visits the studio to recreate a moment in a relationship, getting the two Foley artists, who we can see operating in a gallery above him, to replicate the exact drag on a cigarette, rustle of sheets and rattle of keyboard keys that will transport him back to that lost instant. The woman (Susannah Wise) listens to a soundtrack created by her father that will evoke scenes from her life and from his: a summer meadow; a swimming pool; a terrifying train journey from his childhood interrupted by border guards.

The sound is so precisely orchestrated that you feel the audience flinch as the heavy boots of guards and ominous breathing of dogs approach on the train. Being more closely attuned aurally makes you notice things: when Menzies enters, swigging from a wine bottle, we can deduce from the sound that it is nearly empty, which tells its own story about his state of mind. The show explores the way memories are constructed and recalled.

But though it is a great pleasure to sit and really listen, the piece feels like the start of something, rather than the conclusion. Picking up on the aural clues seems to be designed to lead us somewhere, to some narrative perhaps, but that doesn’t happen, and the show ends on a rather perplexing note. The programme note talks about working towards “an instrumental theatre”. This feels like a step on the way: fascinating, but fragmentary.

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