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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Krapp's Last Tape
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs      October 2006

It has a very short run and was sold out from the start, but with two Nobel Prize winners for the price of one, Harold Pinter's performance in Samuel Beckett's one-man play requires documentation.

A reminder: Beckett's play shows an old man who evidently kept audiotape diaries all his life listening to a couple from the past and then recording what is probably his final entry.

The published text has him listening with alternate amusement, impatience and interest to a couple of his younger selves while puttering around his desk and eating a banana or two.

But over the years during which Beckett directed various productions of the play, he progressively cut the text, and it is one of the stripped-down versions that is used here.

So, for those who know the play, we only hear the age-39 tape, not the younger one, and virtually all of the preliminary comic business involving the bananas and the desk is gone.

(There are laughs in the performance, the first one generated when, before even speaking, Krapp leaves the stage for a drink, and others by his wry reactions to what he hears.)

It is, of course, totally appropriate that Pinter, a minimalist on the model of his admitted major influence Beckett, should choose an ultra-minimal version of this already short play, and that he and director Ian Rickman should build his performance on the most subtle of movements and vocal inflections.

It is also in character for the 77-year-old Pinter not to disguise his own physical frailty but employ it.

He sits in a motorised wheelchair, lit (by Paule Constable) in a way that accents his gauntness, and exploits the contrast between his hoarse live voice and the fuller resonance he was able to achieve on tape.

On the other hand his Krapp is not as close to the grave as the character might like to wish he were, and Pinter repeatedly startles us with the passion of a flash of anger or pain.

The one tape Krapp listens to is his middle-aged self, philosophising on the meaning of life, much to his older self's impatience and contempt, and remembering a romantic interlude, which the old man also tries to reject as puerile but which he finds himself going back to and replaying twice.

The image is of a man more feeling than he wants to be, more tied to life than he thought he was, less able to deny his humanity in his search for oblivion than he is comfortable with.

The play's last line. 'I wouldn't want them back,' referring to memories, seems more than ever before a confession of failure and an admission that they are back, and inescapable.

Krapp's Last Tape is one of Beckett's most-performed plays (It's easy to put on and irresistible to actors of a certain age), and in recent years we've seen warmer, more comic and more sentimental interpretations.

But Beckett was notoriously impatient with attempts to romanticise or overly humanise any of his plays and characters, and I suspect that this cold and raw depiction of the impossibility of humans to achieve total coldness and rawness would meet with his complete approval.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Krapp's Last Tape - Royal Court Theatre 2006

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