La Voix Humaine | La Boite Theatre

A voice, crying in the wilderness. Or in this case, three voices, because director Dave Sleswick has re-imagined this play very heavily, and instead of the one female actor, he has given us three to play the same woman.

I think this is a good idea, because 75 minutes (make that 90 minutes in actuality) of just one woman emoting on the phone to her ex-lover, who is leaving her for another woman, might be a little hard to take, especially as in this interpretation, where much of the dialogue (or should that be monologues?) is in Hebrew, with not altogether helpful or easily visible subtitles.  It took me, who didn’t know the play, a good 20 minutes to work out what was going on. So be warned.

The play dates from 1930, and as it’s from the pen of Jean Cocteau, the multi-talented avant-garde artist who hung around with the likes of Apollinaire, Proust, André Gide, Picasso and Stravinsky, we know it’s not going to be an easy night at the theatre, although Cocteau denied that he was ever a Surrealist.

Enter one woman dressed in black, reading Cocteau’s stage directions — or are they? They’re as detailed as anything as Bernard Shaw ever wrote, but not nearly as enlightening, because the description she reads of the set is the exact opposite of what we see on stage. There’s another woman on stage, too, who is talking endless to her lover who, we learn, is about to marry another woman. But this being pre-war France, the telephone lines are always being disconnected, or else he keeps hanging up on her, so she (and we) have the additional frustration of being disconnected in a literal as well as emotional way.

Cocteau was always experimenting with the way the human voice can be used, and the play was eventually developed into an opera with music by Satie, Poulenc and Ravel. In this production, the music has been created by Lawrence English, and thankfully he uses a number of tracks by Edith Piaf — and for this relief, much thanks, because I could understand the words!

The play is about the distractions of technology, and the way we use it to disconnect rather connect, and in a prescient metaphor for the 21st century, there is no actual human contact in the play. The woman/women talk always to the lover, but we never hear his replies, if indeed he ever does speak to her, and there is no eye contact between the three women. Just like Facebook and Twitter today, technology has totally changed the way we interact, and the personal and physical gives way to the impersonal single-layered text which allows no opportunity to create subtlety or ambiguity. The truth becomes twisted, and the words are easily misinterpreted, and the human connection that might have been possible if there had been any intimate physical contact is entirely lost.

It’s an incredibly depressing play, and it wasn’t universally liked from its first performance.  But because it’s also about the way the playwright interacts with his actors, it has been imitated many times, for example by Gian Carlo Menotti in his opera bouffa The Telephone and Roberto Rosselini in his film version in Italian with Anna Magnani L’Amore (1948). It has been said the play represents Cocteau’s state of mind and feelings towards his actors at the time: on the one hand, he wanted to spoil and please them; on the other, he was fed up by their diva antics and was ready for revenge.

Whether this is apparent in this production I’m not sure, but like it or not — and it’s not to everyone’s taste — it’s a brilliant play, and extremely well adapted and presented in this Indie Season production.

The details: La Voix Humaine plays La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre until July 14. Tickets on the company website.