Written by Penelope
We all look back. We all look forward. But how much time do we spend in the present? And do we enjoy looking back? That, partly, is what Samuel Beckett’s play, Krapp’s Last Tape, is about. But the Beckett afficionado who accompanied me laughed when I asked, just as the curtain went down, “So, what’s this about then?”. His answer was “Life”.
Michael Gambon plays Krapp – a curmudgeonly fellow, in a scruffy grey suit, with dirty white shoes, and a shirt tail, untucked, with a huge hole in the back. There is a desk on stage, a chair, and biscuit tins with tapes in them. Not much else. Gambon doesn’t speak for about the first 20 minutes but it’s a measure of his acting abilities that you’re not bored. You watch as he rolls his seat on wheels back and forth, opens and closes drawers, eats a banana and looks through tins of tapes. Gambon has enormous, pale hands, which seem to hang in a hopeless, almost useless way at times. He uses his large ungainly frame well.
Box 3, Spool 5. That seems to be the most important tape. He fast forwards the tape and reaches a section that he plays over and over again. Krapp is looking back on a love and we hear the yearning in his voice as he says “I lay over her, my head in her breasts. My hand on her”. Gambon’s Irish lilt and velvety voice make this little speech incredibly poignant. Is this the most significant moment in his life? As he listens to the tape, he seems bitter, he laughs and berates himself for looking back 30 years. He takes this spool off, puts it in a drawer and starts recording a new one, which he says will be the last. But he doesn’t continue. Instead, he gets Spool 5 out again and listens all over again. By now, we can remember the words too.
The play is only 50 minutes long and on first viewing, the structure seems loose. But Beckett was very precise in his plays – writing very detailed stage directions, down to the last gesture and piece of furniture. So it’s not loose at all but very controlled.
Whenever I go to Beckett, I always try to find meaning. He is ruthless, bitterly comic and dark. He is a pessimist's dream. But I think one of the things he’s trying to say here is to enjoy the moment, take the time to sit and stare, to look around you and enjoy what you have. When you look back, as Krapp does, even with nostalgia and longing, you won’t enjoy it as much as you could have done at the time.
A note about the venue – the Duchess Theatre has seen better days, and even though this play is short, it’s still £30 a ticket. Sadly, the evening I went, less than half the seats were occupied. Beckett isn’t easy, but he is rewarding and the theatre could re-think its pricing policy.