From 17 July to 3 August, the National Theatre’s temporary venue The Shed was the site of The Hush: an ‘experiential journey into sound’ created by composer and New Radiophonic Workshop creative director Matthew Herbert with playwright Ben Power.
Coming together in just five weeks, and with just one day of tech rehearsal, Herbert says the idea behind the production was “to try and go back to first principles of sound. So much sound is faked on telly; Foleys, buzz tracks and atmos are all added afterwards, to the point where there’s very little, if any, of the original location sound left. Part of the brief of The Hush is to try to put some of that fakery on display and see how people feel about it.”
There is little in the way of dialogue between actors Susannah Wise and Tobias Menzies as they listen to, and construct, aural memories of lost loved ones. On-stage Foley artists Barnaby Smyth and Ruth Sullivan embellish the experience, alternatively constructing these aural memories or supplementing the actors’ movements with sound.
Speaking before a Friday night performance of The Hush, Herbert adds: “I know some people will find it very hard tonight; we go very quiet for a lot of it, and it makes some people really uncomfortable. They’re just not used to being aware of every noise that you make.”
Reinforcing the sounds that are heard is a system based on kit borrowed from the Cottesloe Theatre, specified by National Theatre sound designer Rich Walsh along with Ben Vernon, The Shed’s sound manager.
The main system comprises eight d&b E-12Ds hung permanently from the central truss and eight E8s, all running off D6 amps. Two EM Acoustics i-12 and two i-8 compact subwoofers reinforce the low end and 16 JBL Control 1 Pro are hung as surround speakers.
“Matthew very much wanted the sound to be like an invisible cinema screen that just comes at you in stereo: there it is, in your face,” said The Hush’s associate sound designer Mike Winship (pictured). “It’s a treat to work on something that is so focused on sound, and where sound is the initial point around which is built this beautiful little story. It’s been a great opportunity to push The Shed to its limits.”
Directing the audience’s ears were a series of small speakers Winship installed on stage: a Control 1 installed under the stage floor, with an additional pair upstage on the ground to bring the main stereo image down further and another pair on the circle front facing upstage to provide more direct sound for the actors. Additionally, two Bose Acoustimass speakers were placed under a bed onstage.
Herbert adds: “One of the exciting things about The Shed is that it’s a temporary space, so it’s full of noise, particularly if you sit towards the back. For the show, we rigged microphones on the outside of the building, and in the foyer, so we can listen in to what’s going on in the fabric of the building and make use of that. Sounds generated outside the building are as much a part of the play as sounds from inside the building.”
Many more sonic experiments were suggested, but, says Winship: “We were all working very intently to create this; every day we’d be finding new sounds and programming them in… there wasn’t enough time for all the ideas.”
However, some of these ideas may yet take shape as Herbert continues his work with the New Radiophonic Workshop: “I really enjoyed playing with the fabric of the building and I think that’s something that’s really valuable to the Workshop and to try and investigate further,” he says.
“Everyone can make music on their phone – stroking bits of glass in their pocket – and that’s not really exciting any more. There’s something about the original Radiophonic Workshop that’s to do with craft and physical materials that was really valuable. It would be nice to see that come back and to try and do physical things as well as just virtual things.”
In the meantime, some upcoming virtual offerings from the New Radiophonic Workshop include a series if impulse response files from unusual buildings around the UK: “The first one was Hamilton Mausoleum, which has the longest man-made reverb in Britain apparently,” says Herbet.
“People are really ready to talk about sound in an interesting way and to be open to what it can do,” Herbert concludes. “ We’re still being quite secretive about a lot of the work that we do and then in about eight months time, we’ll make it all public and you can see what we’ve been up to.”