21 March 2022
THE HUMAN VOICE (Harold Pinter Theatre) Review
This is a staging of Jean Cocteau’s “La voix humaine”, which he wrote in late 1920s. It seems to have had several revivals on stage and screen in the last few years, including a Tilda Swinton / Pedro Almodóvar collaboration. The play is an hour-long monologue: a woman is speaking on the phone to her former lover who has left her for someone else. We only hear her side of the conversation, so his lines are left to our imagination.
Apparently Cocteau wrote the play, at least in part, to give his actresses the opportunity to showcase their acting talents. Yet Wilson seems constrained, albeit sympathetic.
An hour-fifteen felt unbelievably long. The staging is full of gratuitous pauses and moves at a snail pace. At one point, we have at least 3 minutes when literally nothing happens whilst a song plays. That aside, the text is incredibly dated. With all the strong independent women asserting their rise over emotional abuse, it’s a bit sad and creepy to hear Ruth Wilson wilt on the floor, mumbling something along the lines of “if you cheated on me out of kindness, I would’ve loved you even more”. They should’ve sold barf bags at the door.
The bigger problem is that at no point do we see a great love story. This isn’t Norma or Tosca or Madam Butterfly. Wilson’s character is needy and weepy and sad, but there is absolutely no indication as to why she is so upset. Obviously having a relationship end is upsetting, let alone being left for someone else (not a spoiler, this gets out there in the first few minutes), but it’s never made clear what was so special about the fella, so we have an hour of Wilson essentially thanking him for the kindness of gracing her with one last phone call. I’ll take a fresh barf bag please!
What blurbs I’d seen about the play (before the run started) suggested that the play is about loneliness and so quite timely off the back of Covid-related isolation. And yet I didn’t walk away from the show thinking, “wow, she’s lonely”… It was more like, “wow, she should’ve dumped his sorry arse years ago!”
The staging is typical Ivo van Hove. Usually I am a big fan of his minimalism, but it doesn’t quite work in this case. The room is bare and framed by the walls. A confined space, I get it: Wilson is trapped in it like she is in a cage. But if you sit in the balcony, her head is cut off a lot of the time. I was in the Royal Circle, so it wasn’t a problem for me, but still worth calling it out. There is also a lot of floor sitting, so suspect people in the stalls had the frame of the room blocking Wilson’s body from below.
There are also internal inconsistencies. Wilson speaks into the phone, then to herself when the call disconnects, then back into the phone, but carries on as if previous comments were spoken to the man. Not sure if this is Cocteau or von Hove, but it doesn’t really add anything other than confusion.
Not to be super picky, but… There is a lot of talk about the woman’s blue dress. Eventually it makes an appearance, and it might very well be blue in the light of day, but the stage lights are this weird yellowish-orange, so the dress ends up looking rather purple. Surely the dress should look blue rather than be blue, no? (Costumes are a bit odd in general here; it’s hard to focus on a woman’s despair when she’s wearing a Christmas Tweety Bird jumper…)
And last, but not least, the music… Beyonce’s “If you like it, then you should’ve put a ring on it” and Miley’s “I came in like a wrecking ball”? Seriously? It simply doesn’t go with the mood of the play and has a faint smell of trying to make the play appealing to the younger patrons rather than highlight that loneliness that this staging is supposed to be about.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: -£5.