The Human Voice


This mono drama has been transformed into a sung piece that takes place over the space of a single telephone call between a woman and her former lover who has found another woman. The Human Voice is based on Jean Cocteau’s 1928 play ‘La Voix Humaine’ which was scored by Poulanc in 1958.  Because of its age, and the use of a landline telephone, there are frequent reminders of the old party landline with other callers breaking in and appeals to the operator to cut them out.  The disrupted call is reflective of the woman’s relationship with her former lover, full of disconnection and misunderstandings. The play takes the modern instrument of communication and uses it as a means to explore the age-old story of love lost, misunderstandings, things unsaid or unheard.

In the hands of this creative team, the play has become a sort of mini-opera, sung and performed with full dramatic tension by Natalia Lemercier who sits, lounges and writhes on a green leather sofa while on the telephone – we never hear the other side of the conversation.  Dressed in pink satin pyjamas, her character Elle knocks back the whisky, nervously smokes, strides around the stage as she sings into the telephone, sometimes with its cord wrapped around her neck. Ever hopeful and imploring, she sinks to the floor in rapture, achingly looking at the ceiling thinking of what she and her lover can do together. Often she is angry with hurt pride and damaged emotion, singing, ‘This telephone could become a terrible weapon, a weapon that would leave no marks.’

Lemercier is a versatile singer and an actress in full command of her role.  The discordant music is hard to sing and play and both her and the other character on stage throughout, pianist Elspeth Wilkes, give excellent performances. The pianist is dressed identically to Elle, the music representing Elle’s emotional state. The score by Frances Poulenc shows the influence of his friend Erik Satie, a difficult piece mastered by Wilkes who is also music director of the piece. Clarinettist, Kelvin Giles enters at a later stage, representing Elle’s former lover. The haunting sound of the clarinet represents her relationship with him.

The one sided conversation is first described through lies about the evening she has endured – she went to have dinner with a friend, she wore a red dress, she took one – only one – sleeping pill. As the piece proceeds we see her confidence whittled away by the questions we do not hear from her erstwhile lover – she never changed out of her pyjamas, she didn’t go out and meet a friend, she stayed in waiting for his call, she hasn’t eaten and it is apparent she has taken far more than one sleeping pill.

Everything fits together in terms of pure acting, playing and singing on a single theme.  However, for me as a twenty-first century feminist, the play seems a bit dated and too much grovelling involved to make it easy to watch.

At a mere 60 minutes, it is a piece which would perhaps be better paired with another and presented as a full evening’s entertainment.