La Voix Humaine, by Jean Cocteau

Showing at Carriageworks 9 to 13 January 2014.

Reviewed by Marian Theobald, Director of Marketing and Communications and the University of Sydney

Still from La Voix Humaine

It’s the first night of the Sydney Festival, and there are plenty of choices. I could go and jump in an inflatable Stonehenge in the Festival Village; I could see a smorgasbord of acts at the opening party; I could watch the world premiere of Shaun Parker’s latest dance performance at the Opera House. But no: I end up watching a woman’s world painfully collapse until she has nothing left to live for.

Nobody could describe La Voix Humaine, playing at the Carriageworks until 13 January, as anything but scarifying. Written by Jean Cocteau in 1930 and beautifully staged by Dutch theatre company Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the play eavesdrops on an unnamed woman during her last tortured and torturous phone conversation with a man (also unnamed) who has left her after a five-year relationship.

Directed by Ivo Van Hove, Halina Reijn gives a superb performance as the lonely and vulnerable woman. Reijn, who has worked with Toneelgroep Amsterdam since 2003, is multi-talented – she translated this script into English, and also writes and acts in film, recently appearing in Valkyrie, alongside Tom Cruise and Carice van Houten. Van Hove is an internationally acclaimed director, working in Europe and America, and has been general director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Netherlands’ largest repertory company, since 2001. The play is in Dutch, with English surtitles.

The setting is an apartment building, and the audience watches through a large, brightly lit window as the one-sided phone call plays out. Underscoring the sense of desolation and loneliness, the set is almost empty, apart from a pair of men’s shoes and a roll of toilet paper. At times, as the woman paces and despairs, she moves out of sight, increasing the audience’s sense of their role as voyeur.

Even though we never hear what the ex-lover says, the story unfolds in some narrative detail as the woman tries desperately to save face, assuring him that she is fine and that the break up is entirely to be expected as it becomes increasingly clear that her lover has been cheating and lying, and that she is on the verge of a complete collapse.

The woman’s deep dependency on the man is almost shocking to a modern audience: she is never angry about the way she has been treated, and blames herself for the collapse of the relationship. In a clever nod to her dependent mindset, she wears a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and trackpants, but tells her lover she’s dressed to the nines and has been out to dinner with a friend; when he asks her to return the shoes he’s left behind, she claims she can’t find them, even though they’re clearly in her sight; their call is cut off, and she waits desperately for him to ring back, but when he does, she speaks as though the conversation is a casual one between lovers. She vacillates between trying to convince him that she is "being brave", speaking as though they are still in love, and confessing to him her most recent suicide attempt.

From almost the opening moments, it’s clear there can be no happy resolution to this story. But that knowledge does nothing to undermine the power of the closing moments. This is not feel-good theatre, but it’s a performance that will stay with you for a long time.

La Voix Humaine
Toneelgroep Amsterdam, The Netherlands
9–13 January