La Voix Humaine: A Response by Hannah Cheesman

A Dutch company and performance, a French play, and English subtitles. This certainly is World Stage. And to fill in those blanks: Toneelgroep Amsterdam; under the direction of Ivo van Hove; performed by Halina Reijn; in the 1927 monologue La Voix Humaine written by Jean Cocteau.

Van Hove is a director of mostly classical texts. But he interprets them through the contemporary and thus, we are granted greater access to this still quite timeless piece. Timeless because that pain of being abandoned by a lover is decisively identifiable. It would appear that that ineffable despair marking the end of love does not actually lie in language, or Cocteau’s text necessarily, but rather in those moments where Reijn doubles over in pain, silently mouthing screams she won’t give voice to.

The immediate interest I took in this piece even prior to watching, was how close the 1920’s actually are. This is not an Ibsen or a Strindberg classic. We are much closer to the post-war, pre-depression, and pre-war 1920s than much of the high-brow theatre we deem as classics. But unlike watching a Brecht (as the closest comparison I might draw), the emotional access we are immediately given due to the nature of the subject matter makes this echo of the past that much closer. I felt like I was looking at a palimpsest, and that the beating heart of this early 20th century piece was still quite audible. If I may be so bold: one can easily hear the ‘voice’ of the writer, his time, and even the actress he initially wrote this for. Because the text is monologue, I was impressed by van Hove’s work in sculpting and shaping its body. The writing itself did have, of course, an arc, a plunging into deeper despair from her initial and self-named bravery. But van Hove expertly (and with a mostly light touch) utilized all theatrical elements to create what I think could easily be likened to a sculpture or dance piece. It felt organically realized, from the simplicity of prop choices (a sweater, a cigarette, a phone, a shoe, and of course, the beautiful dress Reijn ends up in), to the changing light that gave dynamism to an otherwise still piece, and the music that acted to carve out scenes or ‘movements’. This spareness allowed the room necessary for this actress to feel, experience, and thus permit us to witness.

It’s my opinion, however, that the music was heavy-handed. The piece did not require it to indicate what the audience should feel where, nor did we necessarily require such a pointed nod to the present as “Single Ladies” by Beyonce. The (literal) window into someone’s life was entirely effective with only Reijn flitting across, around, and ultimately outside of her space. No manipulation of this kind was necessary.

Yet one cannot speak of a one-woman show without speaking of the one woman. Halina Reijn was committed, amazingly natural, engaging, and like van Hove, performed with a light touch. Both van Hove and Reijn worked in counter to the piece at times, putting laughter and levity to the heavy words she spoke. Again, I can’t help but draw comparisons to say a piece of music: deep bass, but shrill trumpet. Well thought-out, exacted, and inspired. Truly worth the price of admission. The only incongruity within her performance, I felt, was how ‘in her body’ she was. For a piece that for me was like sculpture, dance, or music, Reijn felt at times unusually disembodied. As much as her keening and writhing should speak volumes, there were flashes of something ungrounded, unmotivated. I wonder whether this was first-night-in-Canada jitters, or my expectation of dancer-like agility, given my likening this piece to other art forms. Still, I must emphasize how very minor this is, how very much one must search for criticism here.

I had a strange experience though, of floating in and out of the piece. Granted, the immediacy of her words were lost in the reading of subtitles, so this could very well have been reason enough for that. But disengaging was rather easy to do. I’ll return to the timelessness of the end of a relationship here: the same feelings, clothed in different words, make their appearance as always. And so, watching Reijn and hearing the cadence of her voice felt more revealing than the text itself. It makes sense, then, that one can step away and then return, without missing much content. In many ways this was a welcome relief, given how demanding one-person shows can be on an audience.

My only major criticism other than the musical choices was a somewhat pushed comedic sense. The Beyonce, the dog-miming, these moments felt like a laugh was anticipated, hoped-for, but chosen in a way that was strangely out of context or at least outside of the piece’s otherwise airtight realization. With such a delicate piece it is no wonder that I was so sensitive to minor gestures, which become so grand against the lean palette upon which this plays.

All this said, I do wonder about the play’s ultimate message. A woman is generous to the very end, giving of herself and her life entirely. The conclusion seems a kind of antiquated moment of French melodrama or romanticism, and here I smell a sort of outdated sketch of the female. I wonder whether this would have been written differently by Cocteau had he been alive today, or if perhaps this was the most active ending he could find. In any case, it left us with a beautiful image: Reijn in her indigo dress and heels, arms raised, the final sound she utters a sharp intake of breath.


Jonathan Seinen said...

The giant pane of glass that stood between the performer and the audience largely dictated my experience of the ‘La Voix Humaine’. I recognise that the intention behind this speaks to the isolation of the experience of heartbreak; however, I would think that a performance about heartbreak would be about sharing that heartbreak with an audience. When Reijn slides the glass, opening the window and stepping on the ledge – suddenly in the same space as us, breathing the same air as the audience – I recognized what I had been craving since the beginning of the show. I understand that this could be the point of the show, but like Cheeseman commented, this left me to float in and out of the piece, my mind and attention wandering.
It wasn’t until the talkback this evening that I really saw the performer, saw her face and felt her presence. And the talkback seemed to give me the sense of connection and shared experience I was hoping for during the performance. As van Hove’s biography in the program points out, his work isn’t ‘emotional theatre’; rather, he is an ‘intuitive and accurate mathematician’. But when I’m going through the pain of a break-up, do I want to do long division? Yes, but in my heart. And in that moment, I crave the chance to breath with, speak to, or walk beside someone. In ‘La Voix Humaine’, I was denied that chance, except for the brief and magical moment when she first opens the window and lets in the sounds of the street – the sounds of life, humanity, and possible communion.

Alistair Newton said...

I agree with a lot of what has been said above - particularly Hannah's insights about the overwrought underscoring.

I suppose, though, my connection to the piece was personal - as Boy George said of meeting Lady Gaga, "I've been that woman" and it's hard to disconnect when you feel so profoundly personally implicated...or rather, and more problematically when one is trying to be an objective audience member, when you've so profoundly implicated yourself. Christophe Hitchens always says that when he reads Orwell he feels as though he is being "personally addressed". One of the reasons I love Cocteau is that I always feel as though he's creating work just for my sensibilities.

I suppose my major critique of the direction - which was meticulously composed, and I think beautifully so - is that when I endure a breakup, nothing about the situation resembles naturalism; I always find breakups closer to Gotterdammerrung than The Dolls House. Ultimately I was craving more capital 'S' Symbolism and less lowercase 'r' realism.

Dan Daley said...

I felt an overwhelming sense of parallelism with this woman and the relationship she was in. The possessiveness that we place upon a lover can become psychotic. Our desire to feel connected to that one person because they make us feel like ourselves, as though we have forgotten how to be independent: this is the pitfall of so many couples. It was surprising to me, that a play of such age still holds immediacy in my own life. For this reason alone, Toneelgroep’s production won’t easily be forgotten.

Content aside, I had similar issues, as previously mentioned, with the presentation of the work. The prolonged periods of overwrought, angst ridden music seemed to demand that we understood just how tragic this woman’s life was. Halina Reijn’s performance did all that I needed to understand the emotional atmosphere of the piece. She was so convincing that I spent much of the show wondering what this actor must do on her days off to recover from this performance… probably not what I should have been thinking about, but certainly an indication of how much I cared for her.

Perhaps it was too realistic, if there is such a thing as being too realistic. I enjoyed the cinematic feeling of it, given that we were starring at a reflective rectangular shape in a dark room for about 75 minutes with subtitles. I might even suggest that the realism got in the way of the performance, of the play even. The separation between us and her via this window felt voyeuristic in a “fuck you” kind of way. We were expected to follow this piece without much concern for us as an audience. This might explain why some felt themselves check out, wonder off or in my case, imagining Halina soaking in a whirlpool at the Four Seasons.

Dan Daley said...

Just one more thought that I left out of my last post:

I have not read this play, but after having a conversation with Mariel Marshall last night she revealed to me that it is not written in the text that this woman commits suicide. There is nothing about her jumping from a window. This was a choice made by the director. Now I’m seriously questioning what this director’s premise was?

To begin with, the play has a very male take on a woman’s experience. I do think the writing is strong, but Cocteau seems to imply that she is helpless without this man, that her desperation to stay connected is one-sided. She lacks the self-awareness to help herself. This is all fine if we are meant to witness the faults of a male and female who have failed to connect. Ivo van Hove’s interpretation seems to insist that we go further with this scenario, that it be far more tragic than what is given on the page. Again, the melodramatic music chimes in. Then, she kills herself… hm.

I’m not sure there is much of a woman’s voice left in this production. The play is called “The Human Voice” but in reality I feel like I witnessed a woman’s voice with all her frailties, inadequacies and neuroses as depicted through male eyes…