Krapp’s Last Tape is a one-act play from Samuel Beckett that reduces theatre to its constituent parts: a solo actor performing a single scene with a paucity of props. And yet the end result is much more than the sum of these.
Krapp’s solipsistic soliloquy is in fact a dialogue between a 69-year-old man and the different person he was 30 years before, while the single act is a microcosm for both life and theatre itself, three parts clearly distinguishable in its 45-minute duration.
Richard Wilson makes a suitably crotchety Krapp in a production that is both intimate and alienating. Wilson spends the play quarantined in a tiny prefab, the unlit audience crowding in on all sides like the night as he makes his last stand against the vanity of youth. Just as time is measured by the earth’s rotations, Krapp’s life is unspooled by a gently revolving set. “Up and down and side to side”, his younger self says, describing the way the world shifted as he lay in his lover’s arms, and this is practically the stage direction for the whole production, with Krapp sitting or standing as the building turns slowly beneath him.
Beckett’s characteristic concoction of gags and gallows allows a delicious mockery of human endeavours on every level. A lifetime of recording himself for posterity has resulted in a den full of detritus and a sense of his own ridiculousness. The name Krapp itself is deeply childish; ‘posterity’ has never sounded more like ‘posterior’. Aside from the tapes, Krapp’s only other prop is the banana, that most infantile of objects which he lets hang from his mouth like a beak. Periodically yanking the cord of the overhead light, we hear him uncork a bottle in the darkness. This is light as conscience, to be switched on and off at will.
The play teases with our expectations, especially when Krapp plays a recording of himself at 39, saying he’s just made sense of everything. As we strain to hear, he fast-forwards through it, turning the profound into a squeaky chipmunk sound and only stopping when he gets to a sex scene. The self-importance of youth is thoroughly debunked; the implication is that nobody of that age can know anything of lasting value and that all that is worth retaining is experience and not the interpretation of it.
The issue with choosing an actor people associate with easy comedy is that although there was very definitely humour here, it was the audience who slightly overplayed it, laughing a little more often than perhaps they should have. Wilson, however, was perfectly cast, inhabiting the hinterland between humour and hubris in a play about the relative value of now and then and the mutually exclusive states of ‘being or remaining’. For Beckett, youth is anticipation of future greatness, while age is a mockery of those ambitions from a position of resigned mediocrity. Ultimately, Polly Findlay’s perfectly rendered microcosm enabled Krapp to pose a question key to our era of incessant selfies: Is it better to spend your time living or recording that life? The answer, I think, is in the title.
Krapp’s Last Tape at The Crucible Shefield is showing until Sat 19 July
words Alex Murray