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La Voix Humaine, now showing at La Boite's Roundhouse Theatre as part of their 2012 Indie Season, is a compelling prize-fight between local independent theatre company Motherboard Productions and a challenging masterpiece of 20th-century drama. In one corner: French literary heavyweight Jean Cocteau's 1930 telephone dialogue between a jilted woman and her former lover—a solo play so technically difficult as to have since become more widely-known through opera and film interpretations than as a piece of theatre. In the other: a trio of powerful performers, an agile multi-media arsenal skilfully deployed across a hard-working set design, and director Dave Sleswick's unifying conviction that this elusive text can be seduced, squeezed and even sucker-punched into yielding truths which are as relevant to Society 2.0 as they were to Cocteau's generation.
To say that no clear victor emerges is to disparage neither contender. Rather, Brisbane theatregoers are the real winners here, as the Motherboard team attacks this great work with all the considerable experience and passion at their disposal, and as Cocteau's text—though splattered across walls, funnelled through microphones, and reconstituted into English and Hebrew—displays both a resilience and a continuing relevance which more gentle treatment might not have revealed.
The story of La Voix Humaine is a simple one. A deserted woman, unable yet to accept her loss, uses a range of tactics to keep her former lover—whose voice is never heard—engaged in a telephone conversation. Their hour-long "dialogue" is interrupted by technical faults, distorted with misunderstandings and falsehoods, and eventually overshadowed by intimations of a recent suicide attempt which seems unlikely to be her last. Conceived at a time when popular anxieties about the alienating effects of telecommunication were still a novelty, Cocteau's portrayal of the desperation which can arise when human relationships are re-routed via indifferent technology is nevertheless one with which a contemporary audience can readily identify.
Motherboard's use of multimedia to explore this central theme is as skilful and satisfying as one will see on a contemporary stage. As Cocteau's words appear projected onto drapes and wall-panels, resound through delay units, or reach our ears distorted by an eerie pre-recorded soundscape, it is impossible not to contemplate how many of our intimate utterances are today filtered via some electronic device or other, or to wonder what tactile and emotional aspects of our humanity we unwittingly sacrifice on the altar of instant and all-encompassing connectivity. Erica Field's tearful address to a laptop computer, during which a delayed video feed causes her (very much live) voice to outrun her projected image, is an example of sublime harmony between courageous performance and cutting-edge media technology which many production teams with far bigger budgets never approach.
As successful as such aspects of Motherboard's production are in updating Cocteau's concerns, they represent only a partial victory for Sleswick's vision. A contemporary audience can easily relate to the debilitating effects of ubiquitous telecommunications on human relationships; they may, however, find the overwrought wilting-flower routine of Cocteau's protagonist to be in some ways far more alien than his portrayal of a telephone conversation facilitated by switchboard and interrupted by human operators. Nevertheless, to fail to establish a real emotional connection between La Voix Humaine's central character and the audience is to fail in transmitting the greater part of the play's meaning. The greatest struggle for Sleswick in directing this production therefore takes place at the level of character, where the woman's extended, repetitive and decidedly pre-feminist swan-song must somehow be prevented from sliding into caricature in response to contemporary sensibilities.
Sleswick's approach to this necessity is where he most radically departs from Cocteau's text as it is written, enlisting three powerfully-physical actors to play a single role. Erica Field, Noa Rotem and Liesel Zink each bring an extensive background in Japanese or Western dance-theatre styles and intelligent, subversive performance attitudes to the crucial task of embodying Cocteau's heroine in such a way that her painful journey becomes more than just an extended multimedia analogy. As such, they are also charged with ensuring that the more tech-heavy aspects of the production are not permitted to overpower the visceral connection between audience and actor on which all great theatre depends.
On both counts this disciplined and dynamic trio succeeds admirably, if not flawlessly. As a three-in-one being, Field, Rotem and Zink's enthralling and often counter-textual physicalisation reveals layers of complexity which perhaps even Cocteau could not have imagined. As individuals, each actor also combines courage with superb training to bring memorable and distinctive moments of performance to the stage. Field, Rotem and Zink bring a much-needed continuity and commitment to Cocteau's text which not only unearths more than a few surprises, but largely succeeds in engaging the audience with what is at times a tortuous and frustrating conversation with absence.
There are moments, however, where all the subtle subversions and slick stagecraft of a thoughtful and tech-proficient ensemble cannot prevent Cocteau's work from shuffling arthritically back into the more melodramatic sensibilities of its time. This perhaps-irreducible problem is occasionally exacerbated, also, by a declamatory approach to monologue which seems to be the default setting of actors with physical theatre training, and by one or two movement sequences which seem more the by-product of an anxious need to fill potentially empty moments than the organic result of a conscientious adherence to the drama's true shape. Perhaps the one-note relentlessness which sometimes overwhelmed this production was intentional; however there are long moments which beg for a quieter, more nuanced and less heavily-ironic approach. The pervasive physicality which elsewhere serves as a powerful amplifier for the play's emotional undercurrents occasionally seems to broadcast a lack of trust in the audience's sophistication—a lack which not only creates an unnecessary emotional barrier between actor and audience, but which robs the production of the very richness of meaning which it has worked so hard to expose.
La Boite Indie - contemporary works made with passion and rigour
If at times, however, the Motherboard / Cocteau face-off is more of a bare-knuckle brawl than a battle royale, this by no means undermines the overall value of this brave and intelligent production. La Voix Humaine is independent theatre as it should be: passionate, committed, principled and fearless in its exploration of theme. At no stage does Sleswick resort to any of the cynicism, gimmickry or self-satisfied cleverness which sometimes make postmodern theatre such an unrewarding trial for its audience. Rather, he treats this difficult yet valuable play as one should any worthy opponent—with honour—and thus rewards his audiences with a night of stimulating, edifying and ultimately satisfying theatre. In this he is assisted by a first-rate cast and production team, any of whom one might expect to see continue much further down their chosen paths. Through La Voix Humaine, Motherboard Productions can also be truly said to have honoured the commitment of La Boite, through the Indie Program, to "create outstanding contemporary works made with passion and rigour."