Famous for being the favourite actor in movies directed by Leos Carax (Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Mauvais Sang, Holy Motors), and for having acted for great contemporary filmmakers (Claire Denis, Harmory Korine, Claude Lelouch, Pierre Schoeller). Denis Lavant also loves the stage. At the “Off” of the Festival d’Avignon, he plays Krapp, the only character in Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett. Directed by Jacques Osinski, it is the story of an old man who listens again to his voice talking about his past, recorded and stored in a box that he takes out every birthday.
One sunny morning, I joined Denis Lavant to discuss his interpretation of the character of Krapp. When he learned that the interview would be translated into English, he started telling me the story of a Turkish film he played in London, in which he played a French crook…a film that never came out. This relationship between past and present, between the one he was 30 years ago and the one he is today, echoes the last tape we talked about the hour that followed.
How do you relate to Samuel Beckett’s work?
Beckett is a great artist, a great writer who has gone very far in a personal quest, in the dark. I’ve known him for a long time: I’ve always loved his humour. It has to do with the burlesque genre, if not the clownesque, of characters who are a little off-the-wall, at least marginal, asocial, in a kind of solitude. So he’s carrying around this burlesque a little bit. Beckett made a film with Buster Keaton called Film. It was about the end of Buster Keaton’s life and it’s not a funny film at all (laughs). But he uses Keaton’s silhouette a little bit, a few slapsticks. But it uses a very, very slow rhythm and it sets the tone a little bit. At the same time he is a great literary man, he knows his classics as they say.
There is a very inspiring figure for Beckett: in Dante’s Divine Comedy there is in Purgatory a being, Belacqua, who is in purgatory simply because he has no will to do anything. He wants to do neither good nor evil, he is in a kind of prostration, he says to himself what is the point, a kind of what-ifish before Dutronc… It is a bit like the matrix of Beckett’s characters who are in great inertia and who at the same time are fully charged, who are not inert and have a very active thought but are in a form of prostration, of immobilism because there is too much thought.
Do all Beckett’s plays work on the same register in the theatre?
Two years ago with Jacques Osinski we played one of Beckett’s last texts, Worstward Ho. It’s a kind of long fabric of a kind of navigation. It was not made for the theatre, and Beckett’s rights holders are quite scrupulous about his work, we did it in a minimalist way. I was standing on a kind of white square that lit up, in front of the audience and I stood still for an hour and a half without moving to scroll through the text. (begins to declaim the line) We were in a real immobilism with the word that was present all the time, so with the thought as well.
Krapp’s Last Tape is another thing: there are very few direct words, about four pages. Everything else is almost a silent act… And I don’t mind. All we play is exactly what Beckett says. Except that we decided with Jacques Osinski to play everything concretely and not to try to move towards fluidity or naturalism. (reads the text) “Krapp stands still for a moment.” So we’re playing it hard. These are moments that we have chosen to play completely. It sets up interaction with the present for the audience. It could have been played in a much more compact way.
When I start to keep quiet and be in stillness, the connection to time begins to be totally subjective. But, finally, as we defined it in repetition by setting parameters — you can make it even longer, it’s a little long there — in my opinion, there is an organic measure. The piece lasts about the same time each time. But it’s true that it’s particularly at the beginning and then those moments of prostration…
What do you think about during these moments of immobilism, in front of the audience?
I think about everything. And at the same time, it’s free time. I can see the audience. I’m trying to escape, that is, to find a gap between the audience members. Not to be in the eyes of them and at the same time to be aware of my breathing, my body, my immobility, to seek calm and at the same time to be in a thought, to wander in fact and at the same time to be in a relationship by saying “Good, so far it goes, I push again, good, it will be time to…” and then to let come, the cessation of that moment, the breath. It’s open, it’s to be there and then to be absent but to seek that quality of moment that you can experience when you’re alone, to enter into thought and not care what’s around. Except that there actually I am aware that there are 150 glances that are focused on me (laughs).
What did you understand about Krapp’s character? Did you interpret it in your own way?
There’s a score! Usually, in this case, I move towards the character. What Beckett gives in the recorded tape and in the tape he records are elements of the character’s life, his state of loneliness. There is a character who celebrates his birthday with a ritual. For years and years, he has been listening to an old tape he recorded and he is recording one during the piece. Now he is 69 years old and he listens to a tape-recorded thirty years ago where he talks about a tape he recorded himself twelve years ago, forty-two years before his 69th birthday. It is part of three moments of his life and it tells something about a great period of life of a character who is moving forward… and at the same time what is interesting with the recorded tape is that it is an echo of a present from another time. He is always in a more critical attitude by being older than what he recorded in the years before.
The most important work was to record the tape, to make the recording of a 39-year-old guy credible, to find energy, a rhythm, a kind of plumbing, a kind of pretension that is even different from the one he has at 69. Then for me, it is to enter into a rhythm described by Beckett: I put myself above all at the service of the score. Beckett says Krapp can’t see well, he can’t hear well and he has a hard time walking. So I worked hard to do that. An absolutely concrete thing — it may sound silly but that’s how I work — I found shoes in a flea market in Paris, old US army shoes, and I thought, “Oh, that’s exactly what I need!” They are both beautiful shoes and shoes that are good, that are stiff, where you are a little overwhelmed and that help me to have this approach that is also a little Chaplin-like… but a little old, a little laborious as it is described.
So it’s using the elements of the text and seeing how it affects me emotionally too. What touches me in this text is that Beckett wrote it thinking of a woman he loved, very much loved and who died of cancer. There is this thing of remembering the eyes, the look. Actually, it’s “Farewell to love“. That’s what is said at one point and that’s what Krapp will be looking for in the band: he wants to listen to that moment when he was still in a love relationship and he decided to stop to devote himself to his work. What is surprising is that there is also something autobiographical and authentic about Beckett but he stylizes it, he transmits it in a character, in Krapp. Frapps means “nul” in English, right?
Yes, it is written as “Krapp” in the text, but “Crap” in English means “Merde”…
Merde…Monsieur Merde (laughs)[Monsieur Merde is a famous character played by Denis Lavant in the films of Leos Carax Merde! (2008) and Holy Motors (2012)
How do you prepare yourself to perform the play every day?
Nothing. I’m not doing anything. For each show, there is a different way to approach it. When I do great monologues like Worstward Ho — I had a text that lasts an hour and a half — two or three hours before the show my way of reassuring myself was to walk around the city and recite to myself all the text to prepare it, like warming up my instrument. In a case like Krapp’s Last Tape where I have very little text, it is a matter of being in the act of condensing the present. I try not to do absolutely nothing (laughs). Above all, I try not to premeditate, not to repeat the piece but to arrive available to dive into this state. It’s special because I don’t have much to hold on to except to calm down. I arrive an hour before, at the theatre, I get dressed, often I put my things in place…
The only important preparation I do — and I have to think about it — is to buy bananas. Every day I cast bananas in the various grocery stores and I try to find bananas that I like, that are big but not too big anyway, that are good, good enough (laughs). It may not seem like much, but sometimes it takes a lot of time. Sometimes there are not the right bananas available (laughs).
What did you discuss with Jacques Osinski to approach this score written by Beckett?
From the moment we agreed to do this text together — and I thought it was great to make another approach to Beckett after Worstward Ho — the first thing he proposed to me was to really take into account this whole silent act, the whole beginning of the piece in particular, which can be very reduced but here to expand time, to enter into a relationship with time that is not in daily time, that is not a reasonable time. That is really the main issue. Afterwards, we read the text together, we wondered about words. Jacques Osinski also took the English text to try to examine the score, to understand it as well as possible… and then also to try to go to a form of purity, to not have a ready-made idea on the tone. I had seen Krapp’s character played in other productions and one might think at first sight that there was a cynical and ironic tone in his way, in his giggling. We tried to avoid that.
For example, a moment at the end of the piece was precious. Krapp says: “Be again, be again. All that old misery. Once wasn’t enough for you”. Just this group of words — once was not enough for you — I have it in my ear with a kind of cynical irony. If we go in the full sense of the word, it is in this statement something like “Oh yes, you need to relive things another time. You have to record to split the time.” The more you get to the heart of the meaning of sentences and words, the more it resonates, in my opinion. Jacques Osinski has a very precious eye and a very keen ear for this.
What is your secret? How do you control your body during the play?
I don’t have any secrets. With my practice and training, I still have a fairly good physical control. I have worked a lot on mime, acrobatics, dance. I have great body consciousness. And I don’t mind being motionless at all. Then it is a mental exercise: it is to accept immobility, it is not to force oneself. It’s sudden to get out of there in what. Everything starts with breathing. It’s not yoga — I don’t like it — or forced breathing, but I’m aware that I find calm in myself. And then it’s all the time connected by the imagination. From the moment it continues to move in my head, to be in a dynamic. To be in immobility is still to be in a dynamic of thought, or even physical. It’s not being a toilet, it’s being there and everything is held by the gaze, by what’s still moving – that is, the thought. It is reducing the general physical movement to an internal movement, including breathing. That’s it, it’s no secret, it’s just to be aware of it. That’s how I practice (laughs).
Do you come to the Festival d’Avignon every year?
No, it’s not systematic. I’ve been going there for a long time, since the early 1980s when I did Commedia dell’arte. I was in the “In”, I was in the “Off”. I’ve done a good job of walking around the city and the theatres. I’ve seen the festival evolve a little bit too. I go to Avignon when the production I’m in requires it. I’m a little apprehensive but I’m always happy to be there because I like this city. I think the Festival has become a kind of thing, a terrible swelling, but sometimes it can annoy me, sometimes it makes me angry…
Are you talking about the inflation of the shows? (1592 in 2019 in the “Off”)
There is already an indecent gap, the abyss that exists between the “In” and the “Off”. Between privilege, comfort, money that is put into the “In”. Locations are only used once a day for a show. And the way in which in the “Off” the venues receive about ten or fifteen shows a day, everyone is going into the streets to promote their show… There’s some kind of succession between them, we don’t have time to settle down. It is not the same regime, there are two different regimes. It is a bit of a reflection of the society in which we are also living in.
Wasn’t this distinction or even this gap between “In” and “Off” already in place 30 years ago?
It’s always been like that, but I find that the abyss has increased between the “In” and the “Off”. I would have dreamed at some point to reconsider everything when there were strikes for the rights of intermittent workers in the entertainment industry in 2003. But in fact the purpose was hijacked, the Festival was closed and the fish was completely drowned. While that’s where there was a problem to solve, to find a fair status in relation to the whole festival.
So necessarily the “In” there are “products”, the festival has entered into something more and more commercial with products highlighted. Most of the “In” shows are performed, bought, sold. These are shows that will tour. In the “Off” it is the fair where there are shows like mine that are already being performed elsewhere and people who come to find buyers, who come to offer their work, their creation and who are often for their money. Not everyone has the same opportunities! I’m lucky because I made movies so I have a media image. Of course, people will come to see me play in the theatre for that too. I don’t need to pull necessarily. And then there are people who are totally unknown who need to do the retape.
But “Off” is at the same time monstrous and funny: we find the whole possible range of performing arts. There are both stand-up and very intellectual pieces, baroque pieces, as well as very amateur stuff.
If you don’t go to shows during the day, what do you do?
I walk around, I meet people, I eat oysters, I go to the bookstore a lot, I take a break.
But it passes quickly. The whole day is underpinned by the fact that there is a show at 9:30 pm. So I musn’t get angry (laughs). Often I read, I turn, I take several city tours, I look for bananas, I eat, I meet people, that’s it. There are lots of things to do what (laughs).
Photo credit : Pierre Grosbois