I am trying to understand why I found so infuriating Jean Cocteau’s La Voix humaine, performed by Toneelgroep Amsterdam (Halina Reijn in the sole role, directed by Ivo van Hove) at the Harboufront Centre’s World Stage.
Is it because it’s yet another male-created and male-directed female character unable to continue her life without the man who left her? The drama, if there’s any real drama, is in her wallowing and humiliation. That van Hove’s woman drops the phone half way through the play and continues talking to an unspecified presence (her reflection in the glass, a boyfriend she dreamed up) doesn’t change anything.
Is it that she is further infantilized by wearing a Disney-themed top, a track suit bottom and pair of blue socks (which, at one point, step in vomit)? Ted Kotcheff’s film La Voix humaine (1966) with Ingrid Bergman gives us the lead with undeniable glamour even if she won’t leave her pink schlafrock. Bergman’s iconicity prevents the total annihilation of the character:
Anna Magnani in Rossellini‘s L’Amore (1948) is almost forceful, certainly confident and knowing, at moments pensive, never really taking pleasure in her own disintegration:
Is it that, unlike in Francis Poulenc’s opera, the original stage version has no soprano voice to make the main character formidable and/or shrill?
Is it that Cocteau wrote the play to appease an actress friend who had complained that he never bothered creating good female roles? So he came up with this. A play which might have equally been written by the author of He’s Just Not That Into You. No, I take that back: He’s Just Not That Into You gender philosophy is more sophisticated than La Voix’s. Yet the play is still being described as “one of the few great monologues in the world written for a woman” (the program synopsis). We can die happy now.
Is it that in the Q&A after the performance, Halina Reijn — an excellent actress, no qualms — said “How did Cocteau know this is what we go through? How did he know women that well? Ivo also knows women well. It’s like gay men know women better than women know themselves.”
Is it that nobody will ever be able to switch genders and cast a man in this role, with either female or male lover on the phone?
Whatever it is. I can’t understand why this play is still being revived. And for a portrait of a woman scorned I return to Monteverdi’s Ottavia or Charpentier’s Médée. The baroque opera composers — unlike most playwriting men of the twentieth century — when they talked about women knew what they were talking about.
To Coc(k)teau I wish he gets a posthumous call from Ernestine.