The In-Person West End Review: Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice
The unbearable tension of disconnection rings out loud and clear in Ivo Van Hove’s compelling and complex adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice. “Hello!” “Is that you?” ‘She’, the one and only Ruth Wilson (Broadway’s Constellations; King Lear) all alone on stage behind a plate of glass, says, repeatedly, into the phone, as the call comes in from a person, the person, she is most desperate to engage with. It’s an intense repetitive beginning, making an odd reference to the 1930s Parisian phone system that allowed misdiallers to occasionally connect to the wrong line, but with Wilson, the two-time Olivier and Golden Globe Award winner, playing the lost soul in the center with an intense singularity, she, the actress, somehow manages to pull us in, even as we experience and register the tense triggering separation that exists somewhere between ‘She’ and him, and her and us.
The 70-minute monologue play, written by Cocteau (1934’s La Machine Infernale, 1938’s Les Parents Terribles) and first performed in Paris in 1930, stretches out before us plainly, presenting with dutiful expertise the lies that are told to try to hold on, and the uncomfortable truths that exist underneath. Director Van Hove (West End’s All About Eve; Broadway’s Network) finds simplistic magic, even as I waited for some of his typical cinematic flairs to present themselves. They never do really show up; the projections and close-up visuals that have become his trademark as of late (i.e. The Park Avenue Armory’s The Damned), but what he has laid out bare before us all is a performance by a master connector and the Looney Toons way she attempts with all her might to hold tight, until she can’t. Or until she won’t.
It’s a hard complex tension to take in. One that rings true and heartfelt at every ring and twist. The woman, ‘She’, is on the phone for almost the whole time, framed within a picture glass sliding window, courtesy of the expert designer or forever collaborator, Jan Versweyveld (Van Hove/Broadway’s West Side Story), and production manager Dominic Fraser (Old Vic’s Lungs), that keeps us at a distance, while dragging us into her despair. The call ‘She’ is desperate for is from her lover, or her husband, we aren’t sure, but it’s not about engagement or connection. Its base is as far away from that as can be imagined. The need he has is about the rules surrounding separation, and they are quite unforgiving.
But the talk keeps getting interrupted, sometimes by an abrupt cutting off by systems unknown, yet other times by a “quite unpleasant” Madame, with whom ‘She’ pleads to “hang up” and “leave us alone.” She sounds small and clinging, behind that pane/pain of glass that resembles a sparse empty aquarium or maybe some form of a police interrogation room, depending on the energy given out. But Wilson finds fierceness in her unhinged fragility, bringing forth a performance that is as brave as one can be, unpacking the insecure discomfort in her desperation and the dark intensity in her devotion.
Beyonce’s Single Ladies adds a whole other layer that is both fascinatingly modern and more darker problematic internally than maybe we first understand. But the unraveling eventually storm clouds the horizon, as she gently caresses his ‘lost’ shoes while convincingly telling him that they are lost, and never to be found. We understand her pain. It’s impossible not to, thanks to the simple straightforward direction of Van Hove and Wilson’s pitch-perfect delivery, but it’s surprisingly not sympathy that they are after here. The dive is about something else quite entirely.
The levity of the call eventually darkens and the dawning that the breakup is far from what She wants becomes painfully clear. The talk flutters on, expressing concern for a dog while billboarding her desire for all the world to see. “Come Home”, she screams out without the voice or nerve to carry it through the phone line to the man who is walking away. It’s tender but off-balance, this decree, letting us partake in her cry for help, but unable to do anything but watch her potentially fall from grace, internally and beyond.
It is a performance most impressive, that Wilson holds us throughout the 70-minute phone conversation monologue without ever giving us away until the bitter end. Wilson is a complete force of nature, and she honors ‘She’ in an unbelievably caring manner without being too sympathetic or kind. Cocteau, one of the most influential figures in early 20th-century art as a whole, floods the stage with her shock and her pain, and Van Hove and Wilson never lose their grip on her inner turmoil. What rings forth is one of the most complex and dynamic performances I’ve seen this year, without a doubt, and hopefully, you’ll get your chance to dial in and catch her at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London’s West End before it’s too late. This run, you see, is merely 31 performances long, that is before it gets disconnected from us all.