To use only simple elements was Jean Cocteau’s aim for La Voix Humaine. “Not to rely too heavily on the production to create [his] desired effect”, is what he says in the appendix to the 1930 play, which was famously turned into an often-performed opera by Francis Poulenc.
Daniel Raggett disregards that note in his adaptation. In the middle of the Gate’s space is a sealed room, and we’re wearing headphones as we watch – listen to – a woman on one end of a phone conversation. She’s talking to her ex-lover, now in love with someone else, for the very last time.
There’s absolutely gorgeous lighting from Jessica Hung Han Yun, lovely sound design from Mike Winship, and the woman’s messy room – designed by Sarah Beaton – makes striking use of the narrow Gate auditorium.
The box bolsters the sense of isolation and stir craziness of the woman. That’s helped by a wired performance from Leanne Best, playing the woman as if she can barely manage to keep her emotions under the surface, folding herself into corners of the set or pacing around.
But although the headphones are fun, as is Beaton’s amazing set, it’s not obvious what they add to the play. We hear her as if we’re on the other end of the phone, crackly, but are we supposed to be the man?
Also, by using mobiles instead of corded phones, there’s nothing keeping the woman in the room in the same desperate way as in Cocteau’s original. She’s not tethered by the wire.
Although Raggett’s adaptation is sharp and sparse, a convincing bit of naturalism, only getting half the conversation means there are many long gaps and, despite Best’s performance and despite the play’s short length, it still drags.