Tube delays meant that I arrived shortly after curtain up, but the play did not begin for another ten minutes or more. Actress Celia Williams was on stage, her hair in disarrayed 1920s ringlets; she languished on a brutalist chaise longue, smoked several cigarettes, did some rather ostentatious "recollection" acting to Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas". But this was all an extended prologue to Jean Cocteau's La voix humaine (1930) itself. Over several telephone calls with her lover (interrupted by various kinds of bad connection), a middle-aged woman professes to accept their break-up, but her entire being belies her words. We can see that she has been pining (although we needn't have seen quite so much of it), and when asked to hunt out the man's gloves, she pulls them out from behind a cushion, smells them, even puts one on before claiming that she has been unable to find them. Gradually she becomes more honest, even admitting to a suicide attempt, but still she never explicitly asks her beloved not to leave her: neither she nor we are in any doubt as to the reality. After the interval, the same author's The Sound Of Silence (written for Edith Piaf as Le bel indifférent in 1940) follows a similar trajectory: this time the younger lover is present as the woman remonstrates with him, but he says not a word, hiding behind a newspaper until he leaves, still mute, for another assignation.
One is grateful to director Eduardo Barreto for providing the opportunity to see these pieces, but the satisfaction is very much in having seen them rather than in the moment of the experience. The Cocteauvian poise-and-passion are largely absent: in The Human Voice, Williams pauses for the same few seconds between all her speeches, as if her lover at the other end never uttered more than a handful of words at once. The crossed-line business, which must once have been both comic and agonising, is now all but incomprehensible to an audience's younger members who sniggered through the main piece and did not return after the interval. And ultimately, as staged here, the plays' relation to us is also one of at best erratic connection.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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