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FringeReview UK 2020

Krapp’s Last Tape/Eh Joe/The Old Tune

Jermyn Street Theatre

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, European Theatre, Short Plays, Theatre, Translation

Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Trevor Nunn (Associate Director Cat Robey), with Set and Costume Design by Louie Whitemore, Lighting Design by David Howe, Sound Design by Max Pappenheim and Costumer Supervision by Claire Nicolas. Till February 8th 2020


In the first of this casual-seeming trilogy, the title character Krapp cradles an arm round his tape-recorder as if not just an absent lover, but an act of love with the instrument of memory itself, rather than what occasioned it. In Eh Joe a man is lovingly tortured by the voice of guilt in his head. In The Old Tune, not original Beckett, two Dubliners delight in teasing false and faux memories from true. This was though originally presented by Beckett in a double-bill with Krapp’s Last Tape, the original author Robert Pinget having translated All That Fall to Beckett’s approval.

So it was inspired for Trevor Nunn to bring three pieces together occasioned by technology: in the 1958 Krapp’s Last Tape a new tape-recorder, the newish TV medium in 1965’s Eh Joe, and for The Old Tune from 1960 a barrel organ. The combination of a Beckett not purely theatrical in Jermyn Street Theatre with its wincing intimacy appeals to Nunn. He directed All That Fall here in 2012; that was originally a radio play.

It’s designed by Louie Whitemore with a pleasingly bible-black Irish minimalism involving an old Telefunken tape recorder with attendant spools (a word, we discover, to savour) and hopelessly dark windows stage right, a sprawling bed and video projection of the actor’s face, or a bench with a barrel organ. It’s tenebrously lit on occasion by David Howe, with an omnipresent sound design by Max Pappenheim – whether the playbacks of Krapp’s Last Tape, Lisa Dwan’s voice in Eh Joe or the street sounds and barrel organ in The Old Tune.


Krapp’s Last Tape

James Hayes takes the part created for Patrick Magee – with his uniquely flint-edged tenor range and gravelly warmth. Max Wall in 1988, aged 78 produced a skirling, wildly physical version with Beckett’s approval. Hayes too takes on a touch of that vaudevillian glint, even more present in The Old Tune. It’s something we’ve seen in post-Beckett Beckett, notably in the 2009 Waiting for Godot with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.

Never mind the delicious anachronism, or splice of a life. To take that with Beckettian literalness: in 1958 a man of 69 with at least 42 years of tape would have had to start precociously in 1916, or perhaps it’s 42 years hence, about 2000, stubbornly still using a 1950s reel-to-reel to Millennium fireworks.

Last tape? It’s never explained but last as in previous is part of it. Krapp’s splicing perhaps like a DJ on a turnstile, but his choice is thirty years old. Hayes gives a centred un-eccentric performance; a little fizz of energy, a precise vocal register.

Hayes enjoys the encoded pratfalls: unpeeling a banana that shadows out of itself like an antique dildo; then nearly tripping over the skin. There’s eating your masculinity, despite Krapp’s vaunted sexual performance recently, and his 39-year-old taped self resisting with difficulty eating a fourth despite his ‘condition’. If any of this seems gratuitous just check the straitjacketing text. There is still though a wild freedom in being so encased in ‘four or five’ paces as one wildly latitudinous direction has it.

Krapp re-inscribes his life with its previous meanings with that relished ‘spooool’ but he’s gradually pushing himself to the side of his own life by playing back memories with an ever-increasing supply of years to choose from. And isn’t that a metaphor for what we do anyway? As we age – if we’re not careful – we re-encode the cut memories and false commands that condition us into a rictus of habitual self-parody. Krapp is us, with a techno-tic. His name evokes the fundament in the fundamental, not to mention he’s a failed writer, with copies of his book ‘seventeen sold, of which eleven at trade price to circulating libraries overseas. Getting known.’ There’s that ironic glint of affirmation you can never entirely dismiss.

Hayes accents statistics too – something intrinsically Beckettian most of us ruminants never do to this degree. That’s the point. Beckett’s extreme logic is the outcome of any vaguer summing-up. It’s replete with his fixation on his affair, ‘head between her breasts.. my hand upon her’ which he revisits with an onanisitc wistfulness.

But Krapp’s conclusion is brought out with Hayes reflecting on the tape over past years even then. Krapp’s 39-year-old self affirms ‘No I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now….’ That book. The only possible thing one misses is a slight difference of timbre, to imitate the younger man. Wall managed it. Each performance I’ve seen seems to make this work briefer, less epic, more graspable. Yet the text runs to just nine pages. Perhaps we’re getting it and Krapp’s Last Tape spools ever swifter in our imagined replay.


Eh Joe

Niall Buggy is enfiladed on all sounds with The Voice as he sits disconsolate on the bed. The magnificent Lisa Dwan with Conor Lovett is the greatest Beckett performer of the 21st century. Here Dwan soars and rasps, evokes youth and rattling age through an after-dinner vigil as Buggy seems a sick beagle, looking at the sky. And rattle Dwan does, as a woman inscribes another’s suicide rasping on a shoreline in a teasing accusatory dark: she’s lyrically playful, nudging soprano heights of long-fleeted youth, and a chest-register of age as distinct as any ancient Beckett character.

Buggy can say nothing, his head re-imagines an accusatory voice which Dwan fills with a terrible gaiety and swoop of regret, a consolation all fleering; some conscience drone zooming in on Buggy’s Joe. Catholic guilt, having enacted his callous abandonment of a woman who came after The Voice, Joe adept at ‘mental thuggee’ dismisses a ‘young, slim girl’ with terrible consequences.

Buggy’s increasingly projected – or rather ghosted – on a screen in black and white behind. This undoubtedly invokes the old BBC black-and-white 1966 production, allowing Buggy to harrow up his soul in close-up. What with Dwan re-recorded and Buggy projected, the medium is aptly re-imagined as if we were a privileged time-travelling audience in a studio.

This simply cannot have been as acted so expressively before. When Billie Whitelaw finally did it in 1989 (Beckett’s first choice in 1966, she wasn’t available) she was struck at how slow Beckett wanted it, slower than Footfalls, and utterly expressionless. Dwan isn’t quite having that. and to be honest theatrically it’s better that way.


The Old Tune

The Old Tune’s adapted from Robert Pinget’s 1960 play La Manivelle, as Buggy unites with David Threlfall. Its Dublin-jostled protagonists Gorman and Cream seem a more aged, more joyful couple – and as forgetful – than Vladimir and Estragon. As if that pair had returned to the old country years later. Though the intellectual and emotional duetting must have drawn Beckett. Either way, it’s published as his work.

It’s the barrel organ that anchors Gorman on a park bench as the more patrician more assertive ‘Mr Cream’ (the more intellectual Vladimir of this couple) joins him in a relatively joyful recap. It’s Gorman who observes the forelocking of a title. There’s moments when Threlfall describes comic arcs ‘the moon’ and ‘cheese’ as mutually exclusive entities.

Buggy enacts a beautifully-threaded, fragile light baritone almost duetting with Threlfall’s more baritonally rich Dublinesque. Buggy’s Gorman essays a date, Threlfall’s Cream corrects him, neutering his authority: gormless perhaps. Certainly the iteration of dates recalls Krapp’s precise slippages, both a cultural assertion here but also grasping at oblivion, a straightening-up to one last recall.

It’s punctuated by a counterpoint of horns as traffic delightfully suggests cars of 1920s-30s vintage though if we observe Beckett’s precise chronology – Cream’s born in 1883 and is now 76 – it’s 1959/60. Now I admit I was one year old on those 1960 Dublin streets, but about two years later I recall the (inevitably black) VW Beetles and Ford Populars thrumming different notes. Never mind.

Greatest interrupter though is that barrel organ, a beautifully-preserved affair somehow enacting – like Krapp’s tape, or Joe’s voice – a sharp descant of memory. It’s a more affirmative ending, the men ending on a note of ‘when you think, when you think’ almost serene.

Moving from affable bleakness through incised guilt to a kind of puff at eternity in the ever-sought black pipe-shag is a trilogy most can shelter out an afternoon or evening in. If Hayes and Threlfall impress as first-rate, Buggy insinuates superbly, evoking terrible vulnerability, even when silent. Dwan though brings a transcendence that aches Beckett. It’s Jermyn Street. If you can, see it.