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Review: THE HUMAN VOICE, Harold Pinter Theatre

Ruth Wilson reunites with Ivo van Hove in this Jean Cocteau monologue

The Human Voice

The Human VoiceAfter two years of on and off isolation, connected to fellow humans by electronic devices alone, it is perhaps inevitable that Ivo van Hove has brought his adaptation of Jean Cocteau's The Human Voice to the West End. This solo show focuses on a woman (played by Ruth Wilson) having one final phone conversation with her lover before he leaves her to marry someone else, contemplating the entire concept of communication through this particular medium.

It's a poignant choice of subject matter on one hand, however a 70-minute monologue of a woman having a nervous breakdown over a man leaving her is rather exhausting fare in 2022; women can do things other than pine after men, after all. Had it been adapted by a woman, rather than van Hove, perhaps it would have at least sounded a bit more realistic - as it is, it's painfully clear (without consulting any programme or show notes) that a man has once again botched an attempt at writing a female character. The source material shows its age, here. It would actually be more interesting to see a male character grapple with this emotion and vulnerability, as this is far from a well-trodden path.

As audiences will have come to expect from van Hove, the stage set up is all about straight lines; Jan Versweyveld's set design consists of a pod sealed off by a glass sliding door, which acts as the woman's apartment - it certainly lays things bare. It is minimalist to the extreme, though I'd argue that this style isn't in keeping with the character we see in front of us. Judging by the kind of things she says, her flat should be more on the messy side, perhaps with some pictures or hangings on the walls; obviously Versweyveld's design means there are no distractions, but this concept doesn't fully gel with the character.

The major thing about having this pod as the set is that it completely seals Wilson off for the majority of the running time, meaning the entire audience hears her solely through a microphone. For me, this goes entirely against the point of being in a theatre and watching something in-person. Doing this for a short stint is fine, and obviously amplifying a voice is sometimes necessary, but for the most part we should hear the sound coming directly from the actor's mouth - it feels even more perverse to take this approach on a play called The Human Voice.

Not only does the microphone allow us to hear her in the pod, but it also gives Wilson free rein to come on and off the stage as her character wanders around her flat mid-conversation - it possibly happens a bit too much, particularly early on, but does at least add a semblance of realism to a production that feels like a dystopian nightmare most of the time.

The only thing that really saves the production is Ruth Wilson's performance. Even more hangs on this than normal, thanks to the sterilised design and unfocused direction, and there are moments where she is truly captivating. It's really impressive how well Wilson handles being one side of a telephone conversation all evening; it could be so easy to rush through the lines, but without fail she manages to leave exactly the right kind of gap to make it feel natural.

There are multiple moments throughout the play where there are complete shifts in tone, which Wilson does her best to navigate - thanks to the writing and direction, however, this ushers in a distinct whiff of melodrama to proceedings. It's tough to get any sort of emotional connection with the piece given this back and forth nature, which is a shame as Ruth Wilson is usually adept at tugging on the heartstrings.

On the whole, this is a bit of a mixed bag - a quite extraordinary feat, given the short length of the production. If you're a devotee of Ivo van Hove's work then it will likely be right up your street, though for anyone on the fence it may be a bit more of a tough sell.

The Human Voice is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 9 April

Picture credit: Jan Versweyvel

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