The Human Voice review: Ruth Wilson shouldn’t have answered the phone to Ivo van Hove

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·3-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Ruth Wilson in The Human Voice (Jan Versweyveld)
Ruth Wilson in The Human Voice (Jan Versweyveld)

Not even Ruth Wilson’s limpid talent can breathe life into this dated, 70-minute solo show, in which a woman goes to pieces discussing the end of an affair with her unheard lover over the phone. Jean Cocteau wrote it in 1928 as a simple showcase for an actress’s range, and it’s been done on stage by Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman, adapted into an opera by Poulenc and a film by Almodovar, among others.

Here, it’s given a tricksy, pretentious production by the fêted but erratic Belgian director Ivo van Hove and his designer partner Jan Versweyveld that exacerbates the flaws of the material. There was a justifiably big buzz about this theatrical event – the Euro-guru and the singular actress, reunited in London for three weeks only after their magnificent 2016 Hedda Gabler at the National - which makes the disappointment seem more crashing.

The opening, where the woman is repeatedly interrupted or cut off by crossed lines, looks positively arcane. Especially as she is framed in the picture window of a modern apartment, wearing a Tweety Christmas sweatshirt and using an iPhone to operate Spotify while talking into a cordless landline handset.

 (Jan Versweyveld)
(Jan Versweyveld)

Initially cordial, even fond, she becomes by turns melancholic, angry, melodramatic and distraught. She dances, vomits, slips into the dress she had earlier lied about wearing. Her voice gets lost in incoherent echoes or is drowned out by Radiohead’s How To Disappear Completely, which swells and fades, along with a mournful cello.

The stark rectangle of the window becomes tinged with gold, like a sunset, then abruptly snaps back to grey. The staging is striking, but jarring. I lost patience when Wilson was required to growl, whine and bark like a dog, then balance the receiver on her face, praying to God for a callback.

This splendidly truthful actress handles most of the script’s emotional hairpin turns with poise and nuance. But she’s battered on one side by the heavy-handed directorial conceits and on the other by a script - also adapted by van Hove - that clunks along like a Model T Ford. “If you cheated on me out of kindness and I noticed it I would only have more affection for you,” she tells her lover. Twice.

 (Jan Versweyveld)
(Jan Versweyveld)

It’s impossible to imagine the other side of this conversation that lasts more than an hour, even if it’s just happening in the woman’s head. There’s also something faintly pornographic about the whole thing, a vicarious glorying in female mental disintegration that you also see in Tennessee Williams plays. The costumes seem wilfully horrible.

Ivo van Hove has become such a titan of international theatre, I wonder if anyone now says no to him. His stagings can be revelatory, but the last time I remember anticipation morphing into disappointment as quickly as it does here was at his utterly wrong-headed adaptation of All About Eve, which wasted Gillian Anderson and Lily James. Previously, it seemed Ruth Wilson could make anything watchable, on stage or screen. I’ve been forced to revise that opinion.

Harold Pinter Theatre, to 9 April. Click here to book your tickets.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting