I say this with kindness but there is nothing enjoyable about The Human Voice at Gate Theatre. This is an unflinching, relentless monodrama of one woman’s final call to her former lover who is moving on with their life without her. There is no spark of joy or uplifting moment in the 60-minute running time – it is an intense focused study on the truths we feel and the lies we tell as we let go of what we need most of all.
That’s not to say that there isn’t much to appreciate – but appreciation obviously isn’t the same as enjoyment!
Director Daniel Raggett has encased the woman (Leanne Best) in a sealed living room in front of us. The detritus around her – the abandoned mugs of coffee, bottles of Lucozade, dirty window sills, full ashtrays and piles of paper – betrays the emotional state of its inhabitant.
We sit – voyeurs – around her, peering through her windows to catch glimpses as she paces back and forth in her pyjamas berating and pleading with her former lover on a telephone call. And, with headphones over our ears, we hear snatches of their conversation, only ever from her side, leaving us to fill in the pieces on what we don’t hear.
(Can we just take a moment to appreciate the use of Leanne’s Liverpool accent? I feel embarrassed for the industry that I even have to mention this, but we still don’t hear regional accents anywhere near enough on London stages so that’s a thumbs up from me.)
My primary concern though is, how will this production find its audience? I suppose, given that this marks the return of Jean Cocteau’s play to the Gate after 34 years, there may be the curiosity factor. But you have to wonder who would volunteer to watch a play as unrelentingly depressing and anguished as this.
Even though its running time is comparatively short, even I was looking away at points just for a break, a release. This is a relentless depiction of a woman in real despair and you have to figure that if this was real life, and we really were voyeurs, we would have walked away long before the end of the call. Its intensity is suffocating, and I applaud that, but how do you sell that? It’s tricky.
Then we come to the main issue with the production – its relevance.
When Cocteau wrote this, it was possible for people to walk out of your life never to be heard from or seen again. Indeed, the impact of the, then radically new, telephone on relationships was what he was weighing up when he wrote La Voix humaine in 1930.
But we live in a very different age now where talking to someone on the phone seems almost a quaint form of contact given the myriad of social media options. Such is the emotional turmoil the woman is in, it’s hard to believe she wouldn’t resort to cyber stalking just as a means of holding on to her former lover’s presence for just that bit longer.
And I understand the Gate’s wrestle with this – they have adapted the play somewhat to make it more relevant to our lives but is it too much to suspend our disbelief to forget about the internet? And if we did try to bring that in, it would unravel the whole play. This play needs its sense of finality to work.
And if we keep tinkering with the words, when does it stop being Cocteau’s play? Maybe therefore this play cannot be adapted fully, and we need to see it as a piece of its time, or indeed go with it as much as we can simply to appreciate its study of despair.
Gate Theatre, London, to October 6, 2018
Tickets from £24 (concessions available)
All production images by Ikin Yum Photography
Design Assistant: Hugo Aguirre
Assistant Director and Dramaturg: Jessi Clayton
Production Manager: Gareth Howells
Stage Manager: Kirsten Buckmaster
Sound Designer: Mike Winship
Lighting Designer: Jessica Hung Han Yun
Designer: Sarah Beaton
Director: Daniel Raggett
Writer: Jean Cocteau