You’ll need to put all other plans on hold to see Ruth Wilson in The Human Voice. Not only are tickets for the new Ivo van Hove production limited over 31-show run, but the Luther and His Dark Materials actress is achingly powerful as a woman on the phone to her ex-lover for the last time.
The script, by Jean Cocteau, is billed as being “more illuminative about love and loneliness as ever”, clearly marketing itself based on the fact we’ve just overcome a period of collective isolation amid a global health crisis. Set designer Jan Versweyveld’s boxed-in staging, in which we peer in through a clear panel, taps in to the glass screens – be it our smartphones, perspex or windows – which separated us from in-person interaction.
And for all the hype that comes with having an actress as established as Wilson in the main role, I’d bet that around 10 per cent of the 70-minute running time (which is easy to hit, come to think of it) is taken up by moments where the Hedda Gabler star is hiding out of sight in the corners of the set. An emphasis on the “voice” in The Human Voice from van Hove, I imagine, but that can only convey so much in such a visual medium. When the audio-only scenes are overused, it suggests the production should have been a radio drama, and calls the staging into question. Given Ivo’s affinity for the directing and adapting the cinematic – for which The Human Voice appears more like A View from The Bridge with its minimalism, rather than Network or All About Eve for its live camera work – one would have thought he’d be aware of the importance of what’s ‘in frame’, and what’s out of it.
Silence is the other device used excessively in van Hove’s production, though it would be unwise of me to criticise the overbearing use of something our protagonist is scared to confront. Several minutes of Wilson pressed up against the back wall, without saying a world as brooding orchestral music plays, felt redundant and uncomfortable at the time. Yet hindsight suggests we’re made to feel that way. To wrestle with its unsettling nature, and to long for sound to come flooding back into our lives again, much like the woman we’re watching unravel.
An unravelling which makes for an unpredictable slow burner of a play. To some, that may well to prompt them to switch off, the combination of gentle pacing and an anarchic narrative making it hard for them to engage with Wilson’s moping character. Granted, there are moments of confusion as motifs change. A landline phone previously glued to the woman’s ear is now placed on the floor, to the extent I’m left wondering if She is talking to herself at this point or her “sweetie”. You might say it doesn’t necessarily matter in the wider context of the monologue, but it means we’re spending far more time processing the show structurally than focussing on what is being said, and connecting with the character.
‘She’, as the character is known, is impatient, archaic and calculating. Moping in her grey Tweety jumper, she clearly still loves the ‘sweetie’ on the other end of the phone, but also holds resentment for how it ended. The monologue is an impossible, torturous balancing act, where to keep things civil is to not speak the whole truth. To be sharp and critical – which Wilson does, unsurprisingly, with exceptional precision – and fire the “weapon which leaves no trace”, is to risk cutting off ‘the last connection’. It means addressing an uncertain, indefinite silence which She isn’t comfortable sitting with yet. Although we can’t hear what the ‘sweetie’ on the other end of the phone is saying, there’s a sense that he too is aware of this conversational tightrope for her. He wants closure – to end the call – but when is the right time when the person on the other end of the phone has revealed herself to be so vulnerable?
The protagonist’s predicament eats her up, and sees her slowly losing her mind (in one of the later, more explosive moments, Wilson barks aggressively as she impersonates a dog). It eventually becomes a tad predictable as to where the story was heading. The only way it could for the woman to latch on to her precious dreams, the “oxygen tank” keeping her breathing underwater.
Yet there is an unnerving feeling at play once an audience member is aware of that fact. We watch the protagonist crumble, crash and burn through our looking glass, which conjures up this unsettling mixture of helplessness and voyeurism. Holding tightly onto the final few items associated with her ex (including shoes and a blue dress), so much of the monologue becomes about the intricate ties we have to relationships with others, and the price we have to pay when those lines are cut. The concept, passionately explored by Wilson, is heartbreaking, raw, and affecting.
Of the productions I’ve seen, The Human Voice is one of van Hove’s finest staged adaptations – up there with Network. In translating Cocteau’s script, he has packed it full of striking metaphors about the state of being and loneliness. ‘She’ (Wilson) says so much speaking to her lover in a 70-minute phone call, and when reunited with van Hove, The Human Voice speaks to us all.
The Human Voice is now playing at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 9 April.
An audio described performance will take place on 1 April at 8:30pm, with a captioned performance on 6 April at 7:30pm.
Production Images: Jan Versweyveld.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The Human Voice’ for free in exchange for a review of the press performance as a member of the media. I did not receive payment for this article, and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.