Infinite variation in interpretation – The Hush at NTshed

In his introduction to The Hush Matthew Herbert writes:-

‘Sound carries memory in ways that the eyes rarely can. It allows for infinite variation in interpretation.’ (1)

Post show a lively arguement entails. ‘It’s theatre you want to experience with your eyes shut’, says one. I find myself disagreeing.

matthewhertbert1-500There is too much going on visually for me to want to shut my eyes. As always with these kind of debates anecdotes follow. The one for me is a memory of my early days at the Sherman Theatre, when lunch time live radio plays were a regular part of the programme. I used to find it fascinating watching the sound effects team work their magic with assorted lo-fi props from a 6 foot trestle set stage right. The Hush plays with something similar – a recorded soundtrack is mixed with sounds created live by two Foley Artists (Barnaby Smyth and Ruth Sullivan), both visable to the audience and fully acknowledged by the performers.

‘Put some typing underneath that’ asks Tobias. ‘Try another keyboard. Another. Go back to the first….and type real words’

foley artistsTrying to decipher which sounds are being produced live and which are pre recorded is one of the many fascinations of The Hush. Framed behind soundproof glass there is an added level of intrigue and fascination, its an arresting and at times beautiful image which contrasts sharply with the sparcity of the consulting room below (design by Sarah Hopper).

Which led us to the question of narrative – too much?, too little? Herberts’ work has always been naturally theatrical in a listening kind of way (his degree is in drama). So his live performance of the One Pig album revolved around a sonic pig pen (see my blog review here) and his tongue in cheek piece for ‘choir with newspapers’ Simple Mind is a feast for both eyes and ears.

‘The Daily Mail was more useful to me as a musical newspaper. It can help make the world be a better place by being torn up.’ (2)

matthew herbert 2The Hush has a fractured narrative – one that requires work from the audience and leaves plenty of scope for personal interpretation. Tobias (played by Tobias Menzies) is some form of sound technician/composer who appears to run a facility called The Hush offering a form of oral therapy or connection to memories. Susannah (played by Susannah Wise) is a client of The Hush, re-connecting with her dad through a series of recordings before going on a long and permanent journey (echoing her dads memories). Meanwhile Tobias is going on his own personal journey, a cathartic attempt to cleanse a recent memory by creating a new sound work.

It’s not until the very end that their stories, such as they are, become truly intertwined.

‘I was wondering if I could ask you to say something for my thing’ Tobias asks. ‘Is it weird?’ Susannah replies’

The penultimate moments of The Hush are theatrically some of the strongest. One final image, whilst paying homage to John Cage, visually also asks quite what lies ahead for Tobias and Susannah.

Or at least that was my interpretation!

One thing is for certain The Hush really makes you listen. You become acutely aware of the differences between silence and sound, between Edgware Road and New York, between 1973 and today. As you listen its impossible not to interpret those sounds and connect them to your own memories.

‘Everything in the show is based on a true story….The only truthful way we’ve been able to allow sound to carry a story, has been to tell our own stories’ (1)

But the real trick of the piece is, perhaps, that Herbert leaves enough of a blank canvas so that every interpretation of The Hush is based on personal truth. Which is of course true of nearly every succesful work of art, but the focus on sound here (or instrumental theatre as Herbert calls it) seems to heighten that effect ten fold if our discussions were anything to go by – regardless of whether you have your eyes wide open or shut tight.

I’d still recommend the former, mind.

(1) ‘A New Age of Discovery’, essay by Matthew Herbert in The Hush programmmme
(2) see here, review of the Matthew Herbert big band concert featuring a perfomance of Simply Mind (using The Daily Mail as an instrument)

The Hush (created by Matthew Herbert with Ben Power and devised by the company) is at the National Theatre Shed until Aug 3 2013

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