La Voix Humaine | Motherboard ProductionsPhotos – FenLan Chuang

This is the second time Motherboard Productions have performed Jean Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine this year. The brainchild of journeyman creative Dave Sleswick, the production was originally delivered as part of Metro Arts Freerange series earlier this year – both that production and this one presented not as full-blown works but creative developments. The work won’t be presented in full until sometime next year.

This makes La Voix Humaine a complicated work to approach from a critical perspective. One is forced to contend with not just the particular attributes and qualities of this incarnation but how they relate to the work’s previous production. Taken on its own merit, Brisbane Festival’s La Voix Humaine is a confronting portrait of crippling emotional dependency marred by only the occasional kink of over-ambition. Viewed in context of previous incarnations, however, it can seem a little bland.

The basic conceit of the work remains the same – both in regards to plot and director Sleswick’s thematic fascinations: a young woman on the brink of emotional disintegration desperately tethers herself to a former lover by telephone line and Sleswick uses this premise to explore the intersection of intimacy, dependency and technology. The means through which these concerns are rendered, however, vary significantly between productions.

La Voix Humaine, as seen in Freerange, was a complete explosion of ideas. Three performers tackled the one role, multimedia crashed in and out of solitary monologues while the script itself leapt between English and Arabic translations. Plot and pathos – and, to be clear, this is not meant as a denigration – were not the key priority for the work. It was more a protracted sculpture of stimuli exploring a theme than a theatrical play in its own right.

La Voix Humaine, as seen in Brisbane Festival’s Under The Radar, is a decidedly more stripped-back and straightforward experience. Multimedia still plays a prominent role (indeed, it’s a thrill to watch the different disciplinary lenses Sleswick drapes over the events of the play) but only Erica Field remains from the original cast and the entire work unfolds strictly in English. In essence, it feels like an infinitely more faithful rendition.

It’s difficult not to miss the anarchic and exploratory spirit of the original work. There’s always something daring and exciting about savaging the traditions of a classic text and Sleswick’s manifold experiments actually brought out a different character in Cocteau’s script. A device within the script – the telephone line – became the foundation of a series of thought-provoking commentaries and interrogations regarding intimacy and relationship in contemporary society.

Still, La Voix Humaine’s Brisbane Festival incarnation is ultimately the superior work. While the streamlined approach was apparently a by-product of ongoing negotiations with the Cocteau estate, it has brought out an emotional resonance and clarity within the production which admirably complements Sleswick’s explorations. Erica Field’s performance – a brutal, yearning, sensual tour de force – anchors the work’s intellectual conceits in visceral emotional context.

Of course, it’s difficult to know whether this would be counted as a success on the part of the creators. The streamlining process once again shifts the focus from ideas and back to character. Throughout, one is less inclined to contemplate technology’s role in relationships than empathise with the irrational outbursts and tragic desperation of the protagonist. The work provides a more rounded experience in this incarnation – but is it the right kind of experience?

Regardless, La Voix Humaine is a highly enjoyable work. Like its predecessor, it still has flaws that should be ironed out in subsequent airings – an elegiac confession of suicide midway through the piece feels entirely too much like a conclusion and ruins the progression of the piece, whereas the transition between different forms of media can get quite awkward at times – but it nevertheless offers something unique and affecting to its audience. Its eventual season should be a knockout.

Brisbane Festival 2011 presents Motherboard Productions'
La Voix Humaine
by Jean Cocteau | translation Anthony Wood

Director Dave Sleswick

Venue: Performance Space, Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts
Dates: Tue 13 – Wed 14 September, 2011
Duration: 50 minutes
Tickets: Adult $20, Concession $15
Bookings: 1300 111 369