The Human Voice by Jean Cocteau is a haunting, desperate monologue by a haunting, desperate woman trying frantically to hold onto the fragments of her relationship. Translation and dramaturgy by Iris Gaillard for this Theatre Works production, the work was first performed in 1930 with many adaptations since – the most recent starring Ruth Wilson at the Harold Pinter Theatre earlier this year.

Coming as a last-minute addition to the Theatre Works 2022 season, due to yet another Covid cancellation, the show is also the first Theatre Works produced season for the year, under their new model – mixing coproduced seasons with inhouse productions – quite a serendipitous occurrence for lead actor, Jane Montgomery Griffiths with the opportunity to participate in the work coming out of the blue.

“Theatreworks needed to do a season reshuffle owing to COVID and their wonderful director Briony Dunn contacted me about a month ago to see if I was available to take this on at short notice,” says Montgomery Griffiths, “It was exactly the sort of text an actor wants to get – a fascinating sounding project with an exciting new director. Briony and I met for a chat, she told me her vision and I was immediately sold. It’s an incredibly dense and complex test – probably the most difficult thing I’ve done in my 30 year career – but Briony’s passion, wit and intelligence convinced me straight away. So in terms of the main drawing point, it was the chance to be challenged, provoked and stretched as a performer and also to work with someone with whom I felt there’d be real chemistry.”

Greenroom and Helpmann Award winning actor, Montgomery Griffiths, describes the play as extraordinary for its exploration of passion, grief and the pain of lost love.  “Despite being over 90 years old, there is an immediacy to Cocteau’s writing that makes it both urgent and current,” she says. “In our production – and conventionally – it’s a female protagonist  talking to her male lover, but the themes of love and loss are pretty universal. What makes the text so contemporary, though, is Cocteau’s insight into how women are acculturated to behave in a heteronormative, patriarchal construct – the Woman is so concerned for the feelings of the lover who is deserting her that she will do any and everything to placate him and make him feel better at the total expense of her own well-being. Sadly, it seems, not a lot has changed in almost 100 years, and this production is pulling out all the stops to explore that gender dynamic.”

Cocteau’s character spends the entire monologue talking into a telephone – an interesting metaphor for both the voice as instrument as well as the phone as the disconnect between the couple.  Montgomery Griffiths explains that when Cocteau was writing the play, mass communication in terms of the telephone was still relatively new. We can see an equivalence in social media and texting now. One of the themes explored in the play is how this mechanisation of communication leads to alienation and the loss of true human contact and social interaction. As he writes, “the telephone would become a frightening weapon, one that leaves no trace…”

Other themes are grief, pain, love, desire, despair which, acknowledges Montgomery Griffiths,  are pretty exhausting to act day in, day out in rehearsal, but also rewarding and cathartic.

As far as one-woman shows, Montgomery Griffiths has done a couple and yes, she acknowledges,  they can be daunting – both for the strain on the memory and also for the isolation. With preference for the camaraderie of a company of actors – both on the stage and in the dressing room, Montgomery Griffiths does allow that what makes the solo show rewarding is the relationship the actor can develop with the director, and in the case of this show, she says she has struck gold with Briony Dunn. “We hadn’t worked together before but we developed an instant rapport and I just love her way of working. It’s made what could have been not just a daunting but a terrifying project (Cocteau did say the play was ‘unactable’!) into an experience that’s been enriching and, bizarrely given the subject matter, a lot of fun!”

Before moving to Australia, Montgomery Griffiths performed with major theatre companies across the UK. In Australia, she has worked with Bell Shakespeare (King Lear; Titus Andronicus; A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Belvoir (Wizard of Oz), Malthouse (Sappho in 9 fragments; Wild Surmise; Frankenstein [with The Rabble]; Antigone); MTC (Macbeth; Story of O [with The Rabble]); 45Downstairs (Wit); Red Stitch (Good People).  TV includes Miss Fisher Modern Murder Mysteries; The Rings of Power; Five Bedrooms; Casualty; The Bill; Red Dwarf.

She states her career in Australia has been marked by doing ‘interesting’ stuff – often with a feminist or queer theme. For instance, she’s had long collaborations with more experimental directors/companies like The Rabble or Adena Jacobs. “I love the synergy between intellectual exploration and physical embodiment that we’ve developed in that work,” she says. Having said that, Montgomery Griffiths also finds a lot of pleasure in ‘mainstream’ work – last year she played Bottom for Bell Shakespeare and, she says, there was such utter joy in hearing audiences laughing after the long COVID lockdowns that had starved us all of live performance.  Right now, she’s most interested in how middle-aged and older women can find representation on stage, and she’s incredibly excited that major companies like Bell are taking the initiative to cross-gender cast productions to reinvent and subvert the traditional canon.

As far as what it’s like to be back in front if live e audiences again – “Oh, it’s just the best feeling to be sharing stories with an audience,” she say. “I was lucky during COVID – I was touring with Bell Shakespeare who look after their actors wonderfully and we were able to do 27 out of the 90 odd performances scheduled, so I was very fortunate. The major loss that COVID brought, however, was the opportunistic way so many universities took the pandemic as an excuse to close down or slash theatre and drama departments – something that hit me badly as I was made redundant from my job as Professor of theatre at Monash. It was obviously a personal blow, but the much greater loss is what this lack of training opportunities will now mean for future generations of theatre makers – and also sadness of what such a devaluing of arts education says about our national culture and priorities.”

Set in a patriarchal purgatory and playing as a part of the 2022 Theatre Works season, Montgomery Griffiths warns that The Human Voice will not be an easy night at the theatre, “but it will be rewarding – brave, visceral, raw, affecting and recognisable. You’ll leave the theatre feeling shaken but glad you took the call.”

 May 4 – 14

www.theatreworks.org.au/program/the-human-voice