Deadhouse – BBC Sounds

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Directors: David Rosenberg and Glen Neath

Writer: Glen Neath

Told across three episodes (Bethlehem, Salem and Xanadu), the Deadhouse trilogy is an immersive radio project with a difference.

The brainchild of artistic directors David Rosenberg and Glen Neath, Deadhouse is a bold, inventive experiment that places the listener at the heart of the stories. Connected by an interest in the mind and body, where they meet, where they diverge, the Deadhouse trilogy explores these expansive themes by digging down into scenarios of nightmarish unreality.

Bethlehem is the first: we are urged to listen to Deadhouse with headphones on, with no other distractions. We are presented with sounds that suggest we are in a hospital. But as we overhear dialogue, it becomes clear we are in a lab. Bethlehem is a medical facility that aims to revive dead bodies. The listener is one of them: The director of the facility (Lanna Joffrey) and technician, Frank (Amit Shah) are under pressure to produce results, but the experiment isn’t going to plan.

For the second short, Salem, we are in a location, unconnected to the first. Through the silence, a disembodied voice urges us to listen to them “and nothing else”. The hypnotic voice guides us into a lift, and down a corridor. We enter someone’s apartment. There is a knife placed on the kitchen counter. The voice (calm, soporific) tells us to take the knife into the bedroom, where the residents lie sleeping.

The last in the trilogy – Xanadu – is the most abstract piece, and comes with an intriguing premise. Rosenberg and Neath ask whether consciousness outlives the human body. The listener again is the focus of the story – Death whispers in our ear. He takes us through the dying process, we hear our own funeral service, the sound of earth being heaped on a coffin lid. Voiced by Kenneth Cranham, Xanadu imagines an afterlife from ancient myth to an intensely graphic exploration of how the body dissolves and decays.

While Deadhouse asks interesting questions, the shorts never really give us time to break apart what is being asked. Themes and motives are unresolved, and as a result, the trilogy as a whole feels unsatisfying. Deadhouse certainly makes an impact in terms of sensation, but better narrative cohesion would have made the experience work on both a technical and artistic level.

Deadhouse as an audio immersive experience, however, completely convinces. Creating a binaural (3-D) soundscape, sound designer David Rosenberg brilliantly captures a sense of time and place: The bubbling of a stove during Salem; the stomach-churning, but highly visceral, reproduction of a body decomposing; snatches of conversation just out of earshot; a curious but unfriendly dog, snuffling around you. Listening to Deadhouse, with yourself at the centre of whatever is happening, is challenging but thoroughly engaging. The audio work across Deadhouse takes us from a futuristic lab to an imagined afterlife. While the narrative focus is not always consistent, in every piece the element of horror remains front and centre.

These Radio 4 podcasts are available on BBC Sounds

The Reviews Hub Score

Challenging but engaging

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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