'The Human Voice' review — Ruth Wilson shines in searing isolation monologue, directed by Ivo van Hove
The Human Voice is at the Harold Pinter Theatre.
Sit in silence in a busy room, and you’ll hear a lot. The low hum of people talking around you. The flickering lights as they twitch overhead. The unexplainable, disconcerting noises that keep you on edge. Eventually, a voice drowns out all the sounds around you.
You listen. You pay attention. You might learn something. But when everyone tunes into one person speaking, what happens next? At first, it’s a slightly awkward realisation for people in the room, but a few minutes in, you’ll realise that you’ve probably had a similar conversation before, and the stranger becomes human.
In Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play The Human Voice, audiences listen to a woman’s final phone call with her lover of five years. At first, She — an unnamed female character played here by Ruth Wilson — is just a voice, and you don’t see anyone onstage for the first three minutes. As She unravels mentally and physically during the call, we get a sense of her "human" qualities, and the end result is breathtaking.
Ivo van Hove directs the two-time Olivier-winning actress in this heartwrenching monodrama, and Wilson’s captivating performance soars in a relevant isolation monologue. “I am not acting, you know me I’m incapable of doing that” says She, and The Human Voice is anything but that — dare I use the cliché to say it's an acting masterclass.
Van Hove’s thought-provoking directorial choices round off Wilson’s statuesque performance: She dances to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” as she learns of her newfound independence. She barks like a wolf. She pulls back the glass and teeters on the balcony. By the end, She mimics Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ painting.
Eventually, Wilson puts the telephone down and speaks to herself, and the final monologue hits the heart. In the final 15 minutes, She speaks in a stream of consciousness, wrestling with her emotions in a naturalistic way that resonates with anyone who has dealt with difficult decisions in the past two years.
On the day I saw The Human Voice, I dealt with a variety of personal emotions akin to what She feels, so maybe I’m viewing the play from an exaggerated perspective of grief, loss, and heartache. But no matter where you're coming from, Wilson’s striking performance connects — even when you can’t see her, you’re lost in the rhythm of her voice until we’re disconnected at the final moment.
Jan Versweyveld’s simplistic yet effective design uses a neutral palette to great effect. The stone-coloured walls are flexible, moving like a speaker with sound flowing at the slightest touch. Muted lighting design allows She to step into the light in order to be seen — could She find paradise in another life?
Versweyveld’s design restricts the theatre though — the glass screen and black walls gives the production a television-inspired quality, but it shrinks the Harold Pinter stage by two thirds, rendering some seats inaccessible.
The Human Voice has its flaws. Even though the play clocks in at just over an hour, it occasionally draws out too long. But then, nobody can say that every conversation they’ve had went well, so it's only right that The Human Voice itself doesn't always work.
The Human Voice speaks to a world where we stay in touch with ourselves, both physically and emotionally. And there’s only 31 performances in the West End, so you’ve not got long to listen. Make sure you tune in.
Photo credit: Ruth Wilson in The Human Voice (Photo courtesy of production)
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