Krapp's Last Tape

Robert Wilson in 'Krapp's Last Tape'. Photo: Lucie Jansch

Robert Wilson in 'Krapp's Last Tape'. Photo: Lucie Jansch

Fifteen minutes into this production, with a single word yet to be spoken, I begin thinking that a better title for it might be Krapp's Last Tape: The Director's Cut. The director in question is Robert Wilson, legend of avant-garde and experimentalist theatre. He is acting Krapp in his own staging, the blue riband dramatic offering at 'Happy Days', the inaugural International Beckett Festival in Enniskillen. Is the quarter of an hour Wilson expends on getting through the first stage direction (a long one, admittedly) brilliantly insightful exegesis, or palpable self-indulgence?

A bit of both, really. The extended dumb-show Wilson makes of the play's opening, drawing liberally on the visual imagery of mime and silent film, strips Krapp the individual bare before a word is spoken, subjecting his lonely isolation, and how it has ossified him psychologically, to an unforgivingly autopsical examination. It's daring theatre, but skirts perilously close to stasis on occasion. The two bananas are consumed in grinding super-slow-mo: you worry they might have gone off slightly by the time Wilson finally eats them.

Design-wise, this Krapp inclines towards clinical minimalism. The serried white shelving defining the rear of the set, stripped of books and documents, suggests a decommissioned Eastern Bloc Stasi bunker, as do the elevated attic windows stage-left, admitting a minimum of light into Krapp's living area. Beneath them, aligned with rigidly right-angled symmetry, is a selection of box-files, with the anonymous, official-looking demeanour of a public records office. Krapp, dry archiver of his own existence, shuffles stiffly round in this airless, deliberately desiccated environment.

Photo: Lucie JanschThe make-up's also important: taking Beckett's "white face" direction a step further, Wilson dons the motley, mugging up as a shock-headed Pagliaccio clown-performer to an audience of one (himself). Now delicately pirouetting, now pulling a cheeky theatrical grimace, Wilson delicately sprinkles droplets of whimsy onto the sclerotic automation that typically defines his onstage movements.

The effect is, in a way, quietly devastating: Wilson's Krapp is a violently traumatised individual, the fearful symmetries of his apartment, the flimsy superimposition of the clown persona, last bastions erected against the gaping void within him. Beneath the superficialities, he’s also an angry and embittered creature, responding with unusual vituperation to those sections of his audio-diary he finds particularly unpalatable, spitting bile at his past history, furiously suppressing sections too painful to listen to or remember.

The pain is, it seems, too difficult to even contemplate, the emotions too raw to recollect with any modicum of tranquillity. When Wilson's Krapp, reacting to his younger self on tape, abhors "that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago", there's a harder edge than many actors give it, a sudden shaft of self-loathing that sends ripples out into his sensually depleted present.

And there, for some Beckettians at least, will be the rub: this is a resolutely unfunny Krapp, deliberately drained of specious sentiment, unimpressed by the opportunities the script provides to endear an audience to the character’s personality, to allow an element of fondness and beneficence to warm his train of reminiscence. There's something oddly reptilian about Wilson's personation, as though key elements of Krapp's humanity are missing. No doubt they are, but pure nihilism can seem too small a step away in Wilson’s interpretation, Krapp’s vision terminally narrowed, his audience left teetering on the brink of desperation.

On a technical level the production is masterly. With over two hundred lighting cues alone, and a detailed soundtrack to co-ordinate, timing must be razor-sharp for the effects to register, and it invariably is. The decision to voice-mic Wilson seems adventitious in a theatre as modestly proportioned as the Ardhowen – perhaps it’s done to counter-balance the ear-crackingly loud thunderstorm which accompanies the mute psycho-drama of the opening fifteen minutes.

In general, the amplification seems intended to magnify the inner workings of Krapp's mind, thrusting them graphically to the forefront of the audience's attention. For some, it probably had the opposite effect, the preternatural, occasionally harsh-edged sonic environment making it more difficult to feel an intimate involvement with the character.

The closing image of the evening - Krapp alone, face gradually dissolving stage-centre under a slow-fade, interrogatory lamplight (that Stasi imagery again) - is spectral, chilling even. It's totally uncompromising, a numbed, insensate leave-taking, with no residual trace-elements of hope or redemption.

Is that all there is, really? Is that what Beckett actually intended? Possibly, but I worried afterwards that Wilson's Krapp, for all its fierce intelligence and unflinching confrontation with the play's withering existential agenda, by-passes some at least of the soothing poetry in Beckett's language, the gentle humour so often implicit in it, and the warm, compassionate humanity of his creative personality.

Perhaps that’s why, despite its formidable technical accomplishment, and the astonishing facility and focus of Robert Wilson’s acting, this Krapp’s Last Tape, though undeniably challenging, confrontational and thought-provoking, didn’t move me. It’s possibly selfish to want that kind of emotional mitigation from a play so unflinchingly honest in its examination of where the accumulation of the years takes us to in life, and what it all adds up to. Without it, though, an audience is left not so much contemplating nothingness and insignificance, as already immersed in it. Can that truly be where Beckett intended leaving us?

Terry Blain is an arts journalist and cultural commentator, contributing regularly to BBC Music Magazine, Opera Britannia, Culture Northern Ireland and other publications.

Read also Jane Coyle's interview with Sean Doran, founder and artistic director of the inaugural 'Happy Days' Enniskillen International Beckett Festival.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett

25 - 27 August, 2012

Produced by Change Performing Arts
In Ardhowen Theatre, Enniskillen

Directed by Robert Wilson

Set Design and Lighting Concept: Robert Wilson

Costumes Design: Yashi Tabassomi

Lighting Design: A.J. Weissbard

Sound Design: Peter Cerone

With: Robert Wilson