The Human Voice
Charing Cross Theatre, London
Producer: Steven M. Levy for Charing Cross Theatre Productions Limited
Composer: Francis Poulenc with libretto by Jean Cocteau
English language translation by Joseph Machlis
Director: Alejandro Bonatto
Soprano: Natalia Lemercier
Pianist: Elspeth Wilkes
Clarinettist: Kelvin Giles
Running time: 45 minutes
It’s surely a temptation for today’s directors of Poulenc and Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine, or The Human Voice in this English version, to transpose it to the world of mobile phones. It’s one director Alejandro Bonatto wisely resists.
The intensity of this almost abstract debate on one-sided, pathological love is drawn from locking us into a lost world when a telephone call was an uncertain event, mediated by operators, interrupted by party lines and primarily the domain of the privileged.
As the devastated heroine known only as Elle, Natalia Lemercier conveys the sense that life and love are so intimately linked that this ultimate stage of a relationship experienced in 45 minutes of real time is an agonising death. Every time the line goes down, it could be the last breath. Every time the phone rings, her heart leaps.
Lemercier’s Argentinian-Italian mellifluousness brings just enough of the exotic to the English translation to ensure it is never banal.
The telephone bell is a staccato burst from Poulenc’s accompaniment, if accompaniment is the word when it is as germane to the production’s significance as the ex-lover on the other end of the line.
Delivered with grace and gusto by pianist Elspeth Wilkes, it takes us through the rich, harmonious, remembered pleasure that preceded this endgame.
There is joy, levity and even humour as Lemercier interacts with a stranger on the party line, telling them: “We weren’t trying to be interesting”, though they are.
The build to the acute agony of the final separation is underlined by the introduction of one physical male presence: clarinettist Kelvin Giles.
It’s a departure from the original, but effective in that it tantalises with the idea the estranged lover has materialised. Giles stands out as fully-dressed, an outsider entering the night-time interior of women in silk pyjamas, sipping at whisky.
The lighting dims against the curtain folds of Nicolai Hart Hansen‘s claustrophobic set, and Lemercier’s lyricism soars with clarinet accompaniment in a flourish of joint harmony.
Barbara Lewis © 2022.