La voix humaine | Toneelgroep Amsterdam

HK City Hall Theatre (HK Rep International Black Box Festival 2016) | April 2016

Hong Kong Rep’s Black Box Festival kicks off without a hint of irony, presenting a show on City Hall’s proscenium stage: an adaptation of Cocteau’s monodrama, La voix humaine, directed by the internationally renowned Ivo van Hove. It is an enormous privilege to see van Hove’s work presented here in Hong Kong, especially for those in the theatre field (who seemed to comprise the majority of the audience.)

Van Hove’s choice of material appears to echo Cocteau’s own choice in writing the original piece: an attempt to return to the simplicity and purity of a performer in front of an audience. Van Hove mentions in the programme:

“I am known for my large-scale productions, but for a director, a monologue poses the ultimate challenge.”*

Throughout La voix humaine, we see Halina Reijn (‘her’) through a large window on stage, behind which there is only a short distance to a back wall. The choice of such a cinematic staging might also refer directly to Cocteau’s work in film, as well as distancing the audience and giving us a sensation of voyeurism (a theme also explored by Cocteau) – which perhaps gives us a clue as to how we should interpret the performer’s role. Halina Reijn’s emotional journey is more one of gradual exposition than of experiential development through the arc of the play, but Reijn performs it with an extremely detailed truthfulness and connection to the text, which renders it accessible and believable, even as we are reminded of our own voyeurism in witnessing it.

While the text maintains all the original technical problems associated with 1930’s telephones, there is also a mobile phone on stage, which the performer uses at one point to play music, and perhaps to signal to us that this is a modern setting and we should not take the old-fashioned telephone literally. If we interpret this staging as an attempt to ‘return to simplicity’ then this seems to be a strange detail, and a superfluous choice. In fact, there are several other additions throughout, which I felt were unnecessary given the strength of Halina Reijn’s performance. The moment in which she tapes a large sheet of paper reading ‘come home’ (in English) on the window, I feel like I am missing something – perhaps a reference to an image from the news? There are also a few moments in which the performer’s actions seem not to come from her character, but from fulfilling the director’s ideas for images (running at the glass, balancing the phone, dry-heaving), and because Reijn is such a consummate performer throughout the rest of the piece, these seem oddly out of place. If the intention is to interrupt and distance the audience further, then van Hove succeeds, but again it seems unnecessary decoration in a piece that is an attempt to strip down to the minimalism of a monologue.

A sheet of glass separates us from the performer, whose voice also arrives by medium of the microphone/telephone, lending greater significance to those moments when we hear the real ‘human voice,’ and when the window is opened and the performer is no longer separated from us by the window. The placement of sound and the use of the physical barrier of the glass to manipulate how we hear it is well-executed and subtle for the most part; the moments in which the glass opens and we hear the change are beautiful. Unfortunately there is one repeating music motif which mars the otherwise excellent sound design – a doom-laden atmospheric piece, which is played in its entirety at one point while Reijn holds a still tableau. When it is played simultanously with Beyoncé’s single ladies (Beyoncé behind the glass, Doomy Underscoring outside the glass) then it is more effective in manipulating and disrupting the atmosphere that might have been created by Beyoncé alone. However in other places it feels like the worst kind of manipulative cinematic underscoring, which the performer absolutely does not need in order to be able to convey the character’s emotions. Perhaps the choice is another cinematic ‘quote’ for precisely this reason, but silence might have held more power. The use of Paul Simon at the end was more successful, because like the use of Beyoncé, it invokes the audience’s associations/emotions connected with that song and disrupts them.

The unfamiliarity of the Dutch language’s intonation, and the double surtitles add something of a barrier to a Hong Kong audience’s ability to digest the subtlety of the text; having gone from French, to Dutch, and back to written Chinese, the poetry of Cocteau’s text is bound to lose something on the way. While the director’s fame makes it an obvious choice for HK Rep, it seems a slightly strange choice for a black box festival: to open with a not-particularly-unconventional staging of a piece by a famous writer (among other things), by a famous director on a proscenium stage… Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly a valuable experience for local theatre practitioners.

Van Hove and Halina Reijn have clearly worked intensively on this masterful performance of the text, and the staging is clear and successful in its intentions, but it is a shame that in this return to simplicity, van Hove has felt compelled to add bits and pieces that distract from the significance of what Reijn achieves.

This was only the first in HK Rep’s Black Box Festival 2016, and there is more to come – check out their website for more details. The next show is Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral.

*House programme

Cast & Production Team

Playwright: Jean Cocteau
Director: Ivo van Hove
Cast: Halina Reijn
Translation: Halina Reijn, Peter van Kraaij
Set & Lighting Design: Jan Versweyveld
Dramaturgy: Peter van Kraaij

About Ivor Houlker

Ivor runs Rooftop Productions in Hong Kong, a theatre company known for multidisciplinary contemporary work. He trained as an actor at Rose Bruford College, and completed his MA in performance at Goldsmiths College, London.

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