The Human Voice review – Ruth Wilson fails to connect in Jean Cocteau’s tale of despair | Theatre

Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play is a monologue disguised as a series of breakup phone calls in which we hear the anguish of a woman being left by her partner. Using the telephone as a metaphor – the cut or crossed lines a mirror to the couple’s emotional disconnect – it is not just a dramatic experiment in voice but a painfully human play about being desperately, frantically, in love with someone as they coolly walk away. There have been vastly different versions of the central, tormented character, from Ingrid Bergman’s tremulous chain-smoker in 1960 to Tilda Swinton’s imperiously wounded woman in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2021 film. What is key is the grip of the emotional drama.

That drama is not captured here, nor its tension. The director Ivo van Hove also adapts Cocteau’s script and manages to divest it of its raw emotional power and momentum. It becomes as stripped and sterile as the empty glass box of a set, designed by Jan Versweyveld, which seems to keep us at arm’s length with its clinical inscrutability.

Ruth Wilson, as a spurned lover dressed in tracksuit bottoms and a Tweety Pie top, variously underplays and over-eggs her character’s suffering. There are cringing moments of overt theatricality when she imitates the couple’s dog, hugs her lover’s shoes and mimes frenzy, sometimes with added dance moves, in musical interludes featuring Beyoncé and Radiohead. There is one painfully passive moment when she is pinned to the wall, her back to us, while we listen to Radiohead’s How to Disappear Completely, from beginning to end, which not only brings tedium but also gives the dehumanized impression of a dead insect caught on fly-paper.

Pinned to the wall… Ruth Wilson. Photograph: Jan Versweyveld

Wilson seems to skirt over lines that represent her character’s powerlessness (she feels guilty and refuses to blame her partner for the hurt he has caused her). These segments, however difficult for a modern audience, are nakedly honest and courageous in their vulnerability but do not sound or feel so here. Perhaps Wilson is trying to infuse strength into the part but it ends up sounding artificial and distancing. As she unravels, there are hints of psychosis – is her lover di lei merely a voice in her head di lei? – but this interesting development is not sustained.

Cocteau said he wrote this play after his stable of female actors complained that their parts were too writer-director dominated. Ironically, this seems to be just the problem with this stylized production; Wilson’s character is part of a grander directorial vision.

The glass casing, which turns out to be a view into Wilson’s home from her balcony, might have created a voyeuristic intimacy, as was the case in a smaller, far more effective production at London’s Gate theater, starring Leanne Best, in 2018. But Wilson only ever looks like an exhibit encased in glass, dramatising female pain rather than inhabiting it.

A script traditionally staged as phone calls here morphs into a dramatic monologue, which is an innovative move but the play interrupts its own reconceptualisation by returning to the dramatic device of the phone call towards the end.

Most troublingly, there is a whiff of the old cliche around women’s suicidal heartbreak which dooms this character to an Anna Karenina fatalism. Here, though, we see this depressed, despairing woman putting on her heels and a killer dress in one suicidal moment – looking not unlike a model from an expensive perfume advert – which verges on misogynistic fantasy. And for all its theatricality, the play remains stolidly sedate; a 65-minute monologue that creeps to its end.

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