The Human Voice – Harold Pinter Theatre

For the second successive week, a superstar director has taken a different course in response to the intimate demands of a character-driven play about relationships. Where Marianne Elliott suspended the breadth of her, often sweeping, vision to create a forensic analysis of sexual identity in Cock, so too does Ivo van Hove put aside his filmic style for an intimate monologue about the end of love. Starring Ruth Wilson, Jean Cocteau’s play The Human Voice, is a sympathetic study of a women driven to distraction by a final phone call with her lover to which van Hove brings shades of meaning and interpretation.

Not since A View from the Bridge has van Hove staged a play with so little paraphernalia. From Obsession to Network to All About Eve, van Hove has been interested in the place where cinema and theatre overlap, not just turning established films into theatrical productions, but how the camera can be used as a platform and as a revelatory tool. Network, set in a TV studio, was largely concerned with how individuals use, respond to and are affected by news media in which the protagonist is able to grandstand to a large, passive audience through live transmission. By contrast in All About Eve, van Hove placed cameras in private spaces where characters obscured from the stage audience but projected on screen held whispered conversations and asides that created confederacy with the all-knowing, all-seeing viewer.

While there are no cameras and no projection in this new staging of The Human Voice, van Hove probes that very same division between public and private, putting the audience in the voyeuristic position of observer to both parts of the lead character’s conversation. It is staged in what at first seems like a wide screen, a long rectangle of space surrounded by black. But it soon becomes apparent that this is in fact a window, a sliding balcony door of what we presume is a stylish block of flats for young professionals somewhere in a vast and, crucially, lonely city.

But designer Jan Versweyveld, van Hove’s regularly collaborator, gives us very little else to go on. Behind the window is merely a mottled cream wall with no pictures, no distinguishing marks and a home that has no visible furniture or personal effects. Our character is in a void, shut-off from the outside world and us by this substantial picture window behind which she is emotionally and physically caged, trapped significantly behind glass that mutes and contains her.

The effect is two-fold; first it deliberately empties the action of the play of any individuality, reflecting Cocteau’s text that names neither lover or their dog, gives hints of their daily lives, jobs, families or even the conduct of their affair, and instead creates an abandoned, broken-hearted everywoman in no defined era who has given everything up for a man including most of her friends. In response, van Hove places nothing in this space except the woman herself – or what is left of her – and the phone to which she clings and into which her vision of the world and all her hopes are projected. Things do exist beyond this space and into it she brings a referenced blue dress, paper and marker pens, even cleaning products, but there is considerable meaning in what we see and the life beyond the confines of this boxed space.

The second purpose is to place the viewer in the uncomfortable position of spy or interloper, making us privy to everything that happens; the things she wants her lover to know and the private, potentially shameful behaviours that she conceals at home. As this story unfolds and we observe her through the window, it becomes increasingly exposing as her state of mind and emotional control are shaken. Like Eddie Carbone’s self-destruction in A View from the Bridge, we are passive observers and entirely complicit in the outcomes of The Human Voice.

As a directorial technique, the reduced field of vision also brings considerable intensity and intimacy to this staging, shrinking-down the large performance area at the Harold Pinter to just a single viewing point within which the character can move around without losing the focus on her interior life or the building tension of increasingly unsatisfactory and technically disrupted telephone calls. Performed essentially behind a clear screen, a microphone provides the necessary projection which also allows the character to leave the stage as though entering other rooms of her flat or, quite naturally, walking around while on the phone which adds a dynamic and movement to what could easily be a static piece.

Where van Hove adds texture is through a carefully-chosen soundscape that partly brings additional contextual information but also indicates the chapters of this 70-minute drama. It is some way into the piece when our lead opens the balcony door indicating what it is for the first time and a rush of sound comes with it. A combination of traffic and night creatures instantly imply the buzz of a busy city far below, placing the character at a dangerous but important height above the city. In tandem, van Hove provides a soundtrack, a couple of empowering songs that the protagonist plays as she waits for her call and tries to gee herself up for the conversation to come. But in one spectacular sequence, even this is overlaid by a moodier, indie piece that in very cinematic fashion signals her feeling to the audience. It comes at a turning point in the action and although Beyoncé is audible underneath and we see the character shouting into the phone, her exact words are obscured by this track and brilliant yellow lighting that marks an energy shift, leaving us to question her state of mind thereafter.

Within the text, Cocteau leaves the audience to wonder how much of what we see really happens. This viewer is given one half of a conversation conducted on the phone and in a credit to the writing doesn’t leave the main character to repeat what she has heard for our benefit and instead she just reacts to it. We hear the phone ring and, in reference to an earlier time of telephone exchanges, multiple callers appear to intrude on the same line adding to moments of light relief if not outright comedy to leaven the tension momentarily and allow the writer to alter the shape of the story. But later in the play, we begin to question whether there is anyone on the line at all, is this woman, as she says, claiming a final phone call with the love of her life before resignedly accepting the end of their relationship or is there another explanation entirely?

There is a decided separation between how the woman wants to come across, to be considered and remembered, and how she really is. We see her repeatedly assuring her lover that she is well, her voice is calm, alluring even as she tries to be a good sport about it all. She always knew, she claims, that it would end and has enjoyed their time together on that proviso, a model breakup of adult acceptance. Yet, there are hints that there is a specific reason for this untimely separation, another woman, an engagement announcement that perhaps have hastened its end and affected her far more than she shows with only a few spikey comments revealing a deeper affliction to him at least.

So what is her purpose here? Is this truly a decent and civilised goodbye or is the woman using this platform to remind her erstwhile lover what he is missing? Is her seductive tone on occasion and reference to memorable times a strategy to lure him back, one that backfires horribly when she is unable to contain the resentment and distress that come tumbling out across their multiple attempts to connect. And is he worth this pain? There are several hints that he is lying to her about where he is calling from and presumably also the true nature of his connection with another woman. Why has he refused to collect his own belongings and his dog from her flat, sending a servant or associate known as Joseph to do it instead and why does she never call him, is it only because she doesn’t know where he will be or is it for some other reason of concealment. Cocteau leaves these big questions hanging – what could possibly have happened between this couple that necessitates a final phone call but no meeting in person, and just who is really to blame for its conclusion?

The biggest question of all is what is the woman’s state of mind which a lengthy section of the play asks us to reconsider. In her frustration at being unable to articulate her feelings clearly and calmly, is she practising a further conversation with him in her head the way we all do sometimes, only here she is verbalising her half of the dialogue for the audience’s benefit, or has she been talking to anyone at all? Is this whole hour an entirely imagined scenario in which her emotional despair has led her to believe she is in a 60-minute series of calls saying the things she could never do in real life, or, darker still, are there multiple personalities at play, the constant interruptions from other people on the lines, those ‘listening in’ and the woman seeking a doctor, are these merely other aspects of her broken psyche?

Ruth Wilson is always an actor to see on stage and here she captures all the complexities of feeling and the multiple possibilities her character presents. Teaming-up with van Hove once again following their striking Hedda Gabler, Wilson has a unique ability to turn her characters inside out on stage or screen, showing the audience the tumult beneath, and here the wounded underbelly is on full display across a commanding 70-minute performance.

Evolving seamlessly from rational, controlled caller to brittle ex-girlfriend, from fury with the position she has been put in by this man to shy, seductive and sometimes manipulative, Wilson leads the audience through this unfolding conversation as it reveals all the layers, contradictions and engulfing sadness within the women on the phone. Holding together a person who doesn’t want to be looked at but cannot bear to be left alone, Wilson edges her character nearer to the edge as her outward image and inward agitation contend.

Cocteau’s play still feels remarkably alive and relevant 90-years after it was first performed, capturing the tragedy of lost love and the emptiness it leaves behind. It is a quiet play, full of nuance and subtle moments that require close attention as the tides shift within the narrative, and the combination of Wilson and van Hove once again prove a dynamic pairing in this revival, with its understanding of human emotion and empathy for the broken hearted that feels both timeless and contemporary.

The Human Voice is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 9 April with tickets from £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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