Monday, 1 November 2010

Krapp's Last Tape at the Bike Shed Theatre

Krapp’s Last Tape took place in the intimate surrounds of the Bike Shed Theatre bar in Exeter. The theatre proper is still awaiting clearance from the fire regulation inspectors, I believe. The close proximity thus afforded proved perfect for this one man play, however. It’s a story of an old man nearing the end of his days who reviews times gone by with the aid of an old reel to reel tape recorder. It should be stressed that, when the play was written in 1958, this would have been modern technology. Now it appears lumbering and obsolete, a cumbersome chunk of moulded plastic which in itself is a part of the obsolescent shards of the past which it preserves. Tom Owen’s portrayal of Krapp, the ‘wearish old man’, is very physical. He grunts, snorts and wetly chomps onstage, and slurps his drink and belches off. These are the basic, animalistic functions to which his existence has been pared down, and to which even his name seems to point. Our closeness to Owen allows us to experience this unselfconscious physicality of an old man alone in all its awkward detail. These are the sounds of a life lived too long in solitude, grown used to its mutterings and occasional curses. Everything about Krapp is grubby and worn. He is a walking embodiment of entropy. His clothes are stained and torn, and he wipes his hands on his waistcoat having gobbled his beloved bananas, something he has evidently done many times before, leaving an encrusted sedimentary record of his unvarying diet. Owen unpeels the bananas which he eats during the first half of the play with a sensual delight at the sound of skin splitting and tearing. He scoffs them after letting them linger teasingly in his mouth, hanging out obscenely, like a swollen tongue. When he does eat them it is with a sudden frenzy, a frantically consumed moment of ecstasy.

This wordless opening part of the play takes up some time. The published version is only 11 pages long, but this performance lasted about an hour. The play approaches slapstick at various points. Krapp drops his banana skin on the floor and inevitably happens upon in the course of his shambling circumambulation of his big, battered desk. In Beckett’s play, Krapp does slip up on the banana skin, whilst avoiding taking the complete pratfall. Tom Owen, in one of a number of slight personal variations which he introduces, spots the banana skin just in time and gives it an ‘oh no you don’t’ wag of the finger before picking it up and tossing it into the shadows (and hopefully not into someone’s drink). There is also something clownish in the way he carries his precious boxes of tape reels, piled into a precarious pile and inviting a clattering, clangourous tumble (which does indeed happen, albeit offstage). Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting For Godot are also clownish, with Estragon suffering the comic humiliation of having his trousers fall down. He has removed his belt so that he can use it to hang himself. The extreme opposites of bleak tragedy and broad farce are united, here and in Krapp. Beckett even got to work with a confused Buster Keaton in his short film Film, which affirmed his love of the world of the old silent clowns, even if the two ultimately failed to connect on any but a distant, professional level.

Krapp’s boxes of tapes are his carefully compartmentalised and annotated memories. His life analysed, recorded and filed. They are the collected components of a man who has always been an observer of his own experiences, cautious and distant. His 39 year old self is much more voluble and wordy. Beckett describes his voice as being ‘strong’ and ‘rather pompous, clearly Krapp’s at a much earlier time’. Owen manages to capture the lighter tone of a younger and more self-assured man on the tape. These recordings were the thoughts of someone with literary pretensions, and an occasionally showy vocabulary. He has to refer to a dictionary at one point to look up the meaning of viduity, which his younger self casually introduces into a sentence. The earlier self contrast starkly with the wordless figure we see before us. He seems to have become unaccustomed to language, either written or spoken. His reading of the notes from his book which accompany the tape boxes is as painstaking and effortful as his movements about his desk, and he shapes the word spool with the relish of someone discovering a new sound. The word spool does have a pleasing, onomatopoeic roundness, and Owen conveys Krapp’s childlike delight in stretching it out in a sound analogue to the unwinding of the tape from its reel. Krapp’s notes for the tape which he chooses note a ‘slight improvement in bowel condition’, and his recorded self confesses to having ‘just eaten I regret to say three bananas and only with difficulty refrained from eating a fourth’. His self-absorbtion in such narrow physical preoccupations (in one end and out the other – the basic functions of life) is evidently long-standing.

Krapp’s manipulation of the tape machine, punching the stop button, rewinding and fast forwarding means that we hear only fragments of his memories. These edits are a glimpse into the complex, non-linear nature of consciousness and memory, half-completed thoughts subject to sudden jump cuts to interceding associations. The tapes are a solidified version of Krapp’s memories, a technologised record of the self trapped in magnetised iron oxide, like fossils impressed in shale. The play is in some senses a primitive precursor to the idea of downloadable personalities prevalent in the science fiction literature known as cyberpunk, and found in stories such as William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic. These tapes are both blessing and curse for Krapp. They awaken old feelings and bright moments which were never acted upon. When reading his notes, he comes across a reference to a ‘memorable equinox’, which causes him to pause and repeat the phrase with a tone (and look) of utter puzzlement. Retrospectively, it can be seen as the pivotal point when he allowed his life to begin its slow shift towards the penumbral shadows in which he now surround his small circle of light (and whose opacity are enhanced in this production by a light application of the smoke machine). His old self speaks to his contemporary auditor’s condition when he says ‘past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited’. Krapp responds with a mixture of curtly dismissive grunts and rapt, silent attention to the replaying of his memory. His mother’s death passes whilst he seems to be distracted, elsewhere, so that he now (drawing on his recollection of the moment then) associates it with the feel of a dog he was throwing to a dog. The part of the tape which causes him the most pain is a memory of a halcyon afternoon of love, which is vividly drawn in a few brief strokes of detail (a scratch on the thigh from gooseberry picking, eyes narrowed against the sun). It’s a cruel memory of another moment left to drift away. Meanwhile, he is mocked by his subsequent self-important assertion of grand romantic artistic purpose, of a burning vision with which he felt himself to be imbued. Krapp loudly curses these pompous pronouncements and tries to wind past them as quickly as possible.

Finally he works himself up to recording his last tape, a mixture of angry bitterness (at ‘everything on this old muckball, all the light and the dark and famine and feasting’). sentimental self-pity and weary resignation (‘leave it at that’). This tape is tossed aside in favour of a return to ‘box three, spool five’ and the memory of love in the afternoon on a boat drifting down the stream, when ‘we lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side’. The light above the desk dims, and in this production, Krapp lays his head down and cradles the tape recorder, its reel end now flapping silently around. The light from the ‘on’ button casts a red glow across his face. The tape recorder is a physical comforter as well as a psychic tormentor. We leave him in his cold embrace (one from which he may never wake), the tiny flicker of red the only refuge against darkness, and a much diminished echo of the fire which he once claimed to feel burning within. He is trapped in his own personally furnished antechamber of hell.

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