Brighton Fringe 2012
I’d forgotten how short the play actually is. I haven’t seen a production of ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ for well over a decade, and I had memories of there being a lot more events in Krapp’s birthday tapes, indeed of more tapes played, and of much longer speeches.
I remembered the bananas, of course, and the boxes and boxes of tapes, and the general dissolution of Krapp himself, the minutiae of his movements and gestures, but I’d lost the density of the writing. I’d forgotten how just a few pages of script can give us such a vivid picture of the trajectory, the arc of a person’s life.
That’s the point of ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’. Memory. And how the past slips away from us and how difficult it is to hold on to it. And that there’s probably not much point trying to hang on to the past anyway, because it just shows us how futile our lives have been. It was a good move to stage this production in a room over a pub, because we needed a drink afterwards…
The basic structure of the play is simple – it’s Krapp’s sixty-ninth birthday, and he will make a tape, as he does every birthday, recording the events of the past year, along with his feelings and his general observations on his life and health. He has done this since his youth, and they constitute a kind of annual time-capsule.
Before making this year’s tape, Krapp wants to consult an earlier one, which he identifies from an old ledger (he’s pretty anally retentive, as you have probably realised by now), and locates in an old biscuit tin – "Box three…spool five" – threads into an old fashioned tape recorder, and plays. I’m giving you all this redundant detail because that’s how it feels in Beckett’s play – Krapp’s movements are slow, thoughtful, ponderous, and there’s loads of business with keys and filing cabinets and biscuit boxes as he shuffles around the stage before finally switching the machine on.
We hear the voice of an obviously much younger Krapp, announcing that he is "Thirty-nine today. Sound as a bell, apart from my old weakness …". He starts to sum up his year – "intellectually I have every reason to suspect at the …(hesitates) …crest of a wave – or thereabouts." But he continues – "Just been listening to an old year, passages at random. I did not check in the book, but it must be at least ten or twelve years ago." So we have the Krapp of sixty-nine listening to the Krapp of thirty-nine commenting on the life and thoughts of the Krapp of twenty-eight or so.
Krapp at thirty-nine finds it – "Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp. The voice!. Jesus!. And the aspirations!. " And he laughs briefly at the young man – a laugh (on tape) in which he’s joined by Krapp (listening) at sixty-nine. It’s an astonishing piece of theatre – three phases of a man’s existence brought to life for the audience in just a very few lines. The simplicity, the economy of structure of the play, is stunning.
Aidan Stephenson is up to the task of giving us Krapp in old age. When we settled into our seats upstairs at The Lectern I didn’t spot him at first on the darkened stage. Then I could make out his sleeping shape hunched into his armchair next to a small table. When the light came up and he stretched and woke we were looking at a man gone badly to seed. Grubby white shirt under a dark waistcoat, braces holding up stained dark grey trousers above dirty footcloths – no shoes. Tousled dark hair, bushy each side of a central bald area. Paunch hanging over his belt as he moved. He looked as though he probably smelt, and a loud fart (thankfully a sound effect) confirmed this impression.
The lighting was perfect for the situation. A single hanging bulb with a simple shade produced a pool of light around Krapp’s chair and table. It hung only a foot or so above Krapp’s head when he stood, harshly filling the eye-sockets with shadow and making his head look almost like a skull. He stands a lot, fiddling with keys, peering short-sightedly at the ledger or a dictionary, peeling one of his bananas. Or just standing, with a banana sticking out of his mouth, unsure whether to masticate it or not – the banana having unavoidable phallic connotations, though the bend was…downwards.
He sighs, he coughs, he goes off behind the stage to open a bottle of drink (we hear him), he comes back on with the tape recorder, he fiddles with the tin boxes of tapes, he chooses a spool of tape – "Spool … Spooooooooooool" savouring the word in his mouth, he almost slips on the skin of one of the bananas – "Ah Jesus!" – he gazes off into the distance thinking about …God only knows what. ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ is only seven and a half pages of actual lines, but Aidan Stephenson made it last over forty-five minutes. (He told me later that he’s seen other actors stretch it to almost an hour …). For so much of this play, nothing actually happens – and it’s mesmerising.
My one complaint would be the sound. The tape recorder is perfect – an old fashioned upright reel-to-reel model with a grooved casing that Krapp caresses as he holds it close to listen to his younger self. And the tape is perfect too – slight crackles and gaps breaking up the younger man’s words as the signal-to-noise ratio diminishes inexorably with the years. But it’s too LOUD. The sound came booming out of a big speaker completely out of scale to the small tape machine, and also from one corner of the room. A smaller speaker stuck down somewhere behind the chair would have maintained the illusion much better.
So what, finally, is Krapp listening to?, what interests him?.
Sex and death, mostly. Same as all of us. Krapp at thirty-nine is outside the nursing home where his mother is dying – "There I sat, in the biting wind, wishing she were gone.". But meanwhile looking at – "one dark young beauty I recollect particularly" … "incomparable bosom". Finally – "the blind went down, one of those dirty brown roller affairs … I happened to look up and there it was. All over and done with, at last." He says nothing more about his mother.
And his (presumably writing) career – "Suddenly I saw the whole thing … The vision at last". "the miracle that … for the fire that set it alight". But thirty years later, when Krapp comes to record this year’s tape, he can only notch up – "Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas".
Krapp continually returns to a sexual encounter on the thirty-nine year old’s tape. "…upper lake, with the punt, bathed off the bank, then pushed out into the stream and drifted" … "I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side."
He keeps rewinding the tape to listen again to that moment from his past. Krapp at thirty-nine ends the tape reflecting that – "Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.". Thirty years later, Krapp at sixty-nine stares motionless into the distance.
The tape runs on in silence.