Samuel Beckett was inspired to write Krapp’s Last Tape after hearing Northern Irish actor Patrick Magee reading excerpts from Molloy and From an Abandoned Work on radio. Originally entitled ‘Magee Monologue’ it was premiered in 1958 as a curtain opener for another of his lasting contributions to theatre, Endgame, and starred Patrick Magee. Other notable actors to take on the role before Michael Gambon include John Hurt and playwright Harold Pinter. Michael Gambon here makes a triumphant return to his roots with the Gate Theatre (it was where he made his stage debut before being picked up by Laurence Olivier).
Life often fails to live up the expectations and dreams of when we are young and reading an old diary or journal can often be a traumatizing experience; the disparity between what we had hoped would be and what actually has been is often so great that it makes us feel like we missed the opportunities for a better life. This is a harsh realisation and it is the challenge that Krapp, the character of Beckett’s famous monologue, faces throughout the piece.
He has settled into the tradition of marking his birthday every year by recording onto reels the events of the year and listening to the ones he has recorded in previous years. He has become a disheveled figure; a ghost of his former self and the production captures this image perfectly. The costume for Krapp is a worn and faded, dirty and unwashed collection of aged clothes, from the assumedly once-white shirt to the scuffed shoes and unkempt hair. He is clearly a man who has long since given up on taking care of himself, wandering off intermittently to a drinks cabinet offstage and feasting on bananas.
The set is developed in a minimalist style that is typical of Beckett productions. The single light hanging above the old desk casts a simple picture of the somewhat isolated life of the room’s occupant. The desk also implies a greater time past, being a good quality, large desk but worn and obviously well used.
Michael Gambon’s portrayal of Krapp is faultless. When the curtain comes up we see him languishing over the desk and from that moment to the very end he seems as at home in the character as Krapp is at the desk. They are one and the same person. Before too long (though not straight away, of course) he begins to explore his room (though not straying too far from the desk as he runs his thumbnail along the dents along the edges), in search of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: a banana. This is a masterful piece of characterisation from both Beckett and Gambon. The inclusion of this image gives Krapp a dimension of animalistic, primitive de-evolved nature and Gambon embraces it. He manages to produce a comedy with the bananas that had me on the verge of laughter that would disturb the near silence of the audience who sat utterly captivated by the power of Gambon’s natural and powerful stage presence.
The way he uses the lighting and the props are so comfortable that you easily understand the way the man has deteriorated over the years. Gambon delicately infuses the character with a natural believability, which is remarkable bearing in mind that it’s a script by Samuel Beckett. The subtle nuances regarding his relationship with his former self aren’t prominent but are strong and feature in what is an insightful proportion to the rest of the production. For example, the moment that he fails to remember the meaning of the word ‘viduity’ and has to go to his old and dusty dictionary to remind himself (the state of being a widower or a widow; widowhood) puts him in the very relatable situation of a writer who has lost touch with that which made him unique.
The direction is also put together in a very mature and conscious fashion; the simplicity of the script perfectly demonstrated. There is a danger of rushing words or overdoing pauses when you’re faced with a piece of work such as this but in every case the pace and pauses in the script and the actions in the silence weren’t laboured or hurried but kept for as long as was required to elicit a response and then moved on from. Gambon moved at a pace that allowed the full impact of the script to come through and impress on us as an audience.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piece of theatre as coherent as this and I find this remarkable bearing in mind the demanding nature of the role. Every memory is brought to vivid life, painting colourful pictures of a vibrant life that directly contrasts with the simplicity and blackness of what we can see before us. The passages about his previous girlfriends and lovers, especially the one he returns to again and again with the pair of them sitting in the boat on the lake add so much upon each visit that before long they seem like your memories and you can’t help relating to Krapp in some way or other.
This production offers so much in such a short space with such minimalist features that it remains a remarkable piece of work. The person behind me, upon the conclusion of the play, remarked to her partner ‘Is that it?’ There can surely be no better praise for what is a faultless production of a great work of theatre.
At the Duchess Theatre, written by Samuel Beckett, directed by Michael Colgan, cast includes Michael Gambon, runs from 15th September – 20th November 2010.
John Ord (27/10/2010)