The Human Voice, theater critic Harold Pinter – acting masterclass
Part of the hype is the hot buns effect – the show is in the West End for just 31 performances.
Wilson plays the Nameless Woman, a role Rosamund Pike and Tilda Swinton performed on celluloid, and follows Leanne Best at the Gate Theater in 2018 in a version directed by Daniel Raggett, who served as van Hove’s assistant director. He isolated her in a sealed room in the middle of the theater, and so the audience listened to her cellphone conversation through earphones. This time, Wilson is also confined to an oblong box, with a large bay window separating her from the audience. A kind of rear window for one, a morgue perhaps.
As the woman picks up the phone to take her lover’s call, she must endure old-world landline technology – with its crossed wires and haphazard connections to other people’s conversations. Once she can talk to him undisturbed, we realize he’s leaving her. He would like to retrieve his letters and will send his servant Joseph to pick them up. For her part, she wants him to also take her dog, who prefers him and whom she has abandoned. At first, she acts casual and lies about how she feels. But it doesn’t last.
The woman tries to be brave, but her mask of courage is slipping: she is insomniac, sinking into depression and suicidal thoughts. Gradually, his self-mockery and flattering laugh turn into flustered confessions of emotional distress and fear of heights. She says that she is no longer used to sleeping alone and that the intensity of her love is expressed by her desire to cling to a pair of shoes that her lover left in the apartment, objects who feel it and caress it with acute nostalgia. She also wears some of his clothes; she is restless and imagines, in this version, conversations she has not yet had with him. In van Hove’s adaptation, it’s a thoroughly contemporary and naturalistic account of the agony of being dumped.
Cocteau was a visionary avant-garde artist, whose sensibility mixes surrealism and poetic imagination, but there is nothing fantastic about this piece. Anyone who has ever involuntarily separated from a lover will recognize the searing intensity of feelings and the obsessive repetitiveness of thoughts. While it could be argued that Cocteau’s narrative of the female victim, a person who breaks down hysterically when her man leaves her, is an old masculinist fantasy, this piece would work just as well with a man in the same role. The story is about how the defensive layers are stripped away to reveal the emotional truth, so that in the end gender doesn’t matter.
The playwright also explored, in 1930, the relatively new technology of the home telephone, a reminder of the intimacy of this instrument – the human voice in your ear is so close, even when the speaker is far away. As if to prove the point, the woman picks up the phone from her bed, waiting and waiting for it to ring. Because she feels so completely alone, the machine is a lifesaver – she compares it to the oxygen supply of a deep-sea diver. Like a mobile or a zoom, it It’s also a technology that sometimes lets us down, like when it gets a crossed out line. But the phone’s aura of intimacy, providing connection in a world of solitude is the piece’s strongest idea.
Van Hove’s production is, as you would expect, perfect in tone and texture. Starting with an empty, empty room as Wilson begins to struggle with the phone offstage, he keeps the moment of whiteness long enough for us to feel uncomfortable. While she convincingly plays her character’s role of brave indifference, the color scheme is beige and the lighting only warms up when her emotions start to rise. When she opens the window of her apartment, the noises from the street come in; when she gets her floor dirty, she cleans it with paper towels (picture above); a musical mash-up signals mental confusion; strong echoes bear witness to the subjectivity of the production.
Wilson plays his part to perfection, a masterclass of control and variation. At every moment, you know what she’s thinking and feeling, from quiet self-deception to wild hysteria. The passage where she expresses her fear of the neglected dog is stunning, as is the sense of her psychological disintegration under the pressure. Each gesture tells its own story. It is not only about the human voice, but also about the human body in all its sufferings and pains. Yes, this hugely moving performance is 70 minutes of theater – believe the hype.