created by Matthew Herbert with Ben Power
at The Shed, Friday 26th July 2013
Well that’s the second time in a week I’ve been asked to take off my shoes in a theatre. At this rate, it’s not going to be the heat we’re worried about when entering the auditorium but the effervescent smell of feet. The premise of The Hush, co-created by Matthew Herbert and Ben Power, is that those wishing to can enter a room in which memories can be relived aurally. And in order for them to feel at home and relaxed, they are asked to take of their shoes. Hence our bare feet.
The show has been created as an experiment in form, exploring the ways in which sounds can be used to tell stories. On the stage of The Shed, Tobias Menzies and Susannah Wise (named ‘Tobias’ and ‘Susannah’ – yes, actors called by their actual names, AT THE NATIONAL) taking it in turn to select sounds apparently from their past, bringing aural ghosts into the present tense. These sounds are created by a sound technician, sat in full view and lit on the circle level, and a pair of foley artists (Barnaby Smyth and Ruth Sullivan) placed behind perspex on the balcony behind the stage. So every time we see a sound being created which evokes particular images to the character in question, we see an entirely raw picture of the actual process of sound-making, creating a particular disconnect between reality and perceived reality.
Some of the first sounds we hear are of the square outside The Shed and then the chatter from the foyer; this room exists in this space and does not pretend to be anywhere else. Thus the magic of sound is mingled with the magic of theatre, as signifiers make meaning. The performances of Menzies and Wise are understated, acting as fairly blank canvases onto which a picture can be painted by sound-waves. The sound technician and foley artists are far more animated, injecting energy into the performance.
The Hush asks us to contemplate the aural over the visual, making stories out of the little material we are given and piecing together the memories which Tobias and Susannah are attempting to recreate. This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, however, as it becomes clear that, through conditioning, we are used to making stories out of words and pictures. Sounds are not quite adequate on their own. To this end, the production sometimes feels a bit flat, though it does mean we get moments of stunning detail: at one point, Menzies spends five minutes carefully recreating the perfect cigarette puff in collaboration with Sullivan.
Towards the end of the piece, the worlds and memories of Tobias and Susannah begin to intertwine, as she runs over during one session. As she speaks, however, he notices her voice sounds like one from his past – presumably she who has been the focus of his Hush experience up until now. She addresses the microphone, and as the real and imagined worlds collide, the darkness is pierced with a streak of bright evening light from outside. For a second, the moving away of a panel in the theatre’s wall feels catastrophic, as if the whole place is going to collapse. Then, as our eyes adjust and the sounds from outside filter in, we recognise that the simulated recreation of reality has nothing on the beauty of the world beyond the confines of this space.