A Theatre Review of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape by Steve Carey
fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
STARRING MAX GILLIES
DIRECTED BY LAURENCE STRANGIO
31 October – 11 November 2018
There used to be an idea that the mind captured everything that happens , that it’s all stored in there, and that when we remember something, it’s like retrieving a file from a folder, or replaying a piece of tape. Now we know that every time you retrieve a memory it is changed by the retrieval, and when it goes back it’s no longer that same memory but a memory of a memory: the telling changes the tale. Beckett seems to have known this all along. A one-man meditation on memory, mortality, identity, ambition, desire, loss, waning powers and more, Krapp’s Last Tape comes to Melbourne in Laurence Strangio’s production precisely 60 years after its first performance at London’s Royal Court and 50 years after Gillies first played the part, at Monash. At 27 he was surely too young then to play this whitefaced, purplenosed, greyhaired, unshaven ‘wearish old man’ as Beckett’s stage directions describe Krapp. Now, you might say, Gillies has grown into the part.
As we arrive Krapp is already at his desk, immobile, frozen, formidable, forbidding, beetlebrowed, inscrutable. Gradually he stirs into life as we become familiar, through repetition with variation, with his habits – a peculiar gait like a man treading thin ice, a gluttony for bananas accompanied by a chroinc carelessness with banana skins, a thirst quenched noisily in secret (offstage). Gillies captures the duality of the man, his physical clowning balanced or unbalanced by his weakening powers. It’s an enthralling performance, by turns funny and poignant, and he never loses us for a moment.
And then there’s the tape. Beckett first encountered reel-to-reel recording at the BBC in 1958, the year before he wrote Krapp, and it’s obvious what dramatic potential he saw in this new technology. (How dated it looks now: nothing dates like yesterday’s modernity.) Setting the play far into the future – approximately and appropriately halfway between its first performance and this – to give Krapp decades of recordings to brood over, Beckett mingles memory and desire, both clouded by time. Krapp ceremoniously revisits his recordings, remembrance of things past, overlaying them now with his own sardonic commentary. Distance has brought perspective, but also brings the events recalled a fresh new life, as if young Krapp is someone else entirely.
The production is spare, Krapp’s little island of a desk surrounded by clever use of the fortyfivedownstairs space to suggest vast darkness. Hidden microphones amplify noises – Krapp’s breathing, the turning of pages – so that his world (‘this muckball’ he calls it) becomes ours. The old reel-to-reel recorder, the boxes of tapes and Krapp’s oversized dusty old books of record and dictionaries are practically characters themselves.
In answer to the question, what’s it about, one might respond that it’s not about anything: it is that thing itself. As nothing kills a joke like having to explain it and as dreams lose their power in the telling, so too prosaic explanations of what Beckett is saying – as if he’s trying to say something, one might put it – miss the point. We can talk of light against dark, the physical versus the spiritual, the past versus the present… some, encouraged by Beckett’s various stage directions and interventions in the productions he directed in Germany (1969) and France (1975), have seen Gnostic and even Manichean oppositions in the play. But if that’s what the play is ‘really’ saying, then why have the play at all? Krapp is haunting and speaks to us of things deep in our being, and works best when we take home its imagery and its evocative language, letting it play out in the shadows of our own memories. Those of us lucky enough to witness this production have a memory to treasure.