Robert Wilson, who directs, designs and stars in the Barbican’s current production of Krapp’s Last Tape, previously wrote in the International Beckett Season’s programme: ‘If the structure is solid, then one can be free in it … I must find my freedom within Beckett’s structure.’ Indeed, this tension is apparent throughout his performance, and seems particularly appropriate, for the play is rife with discomforting oppositions. The screeching 69-year-old Krapp mocks the artistic and romantic ambitions of his 39-year-old-self, who speaks with a confident, fuller voice. Stark sterility rubs up against lyrical language; bestial groans against balletic leaps, the present with the past and the live with the recorded.
The rigidity of the set is striking and recalls a bunker, affirming Krapp’s isolation from the wider world. The pseudo backdrop resembles a stack of empty shelves, possibly an empty audio library, though in some lighting states it is similar to a cage. The only colour to penetrate the grey stage was a banana that featured in a tragicomic sequence early on in the play. In Beckett’s original text, Krapp slips on the skin and falls in the clownish archetype. Wilson omits this, opting instead for a rhythmical and almost ritualistic chewing. The omission seems indicative of the production as a whole, which perhaps falls short of achieving the tragicomic potential inherent in the text. Wilson tried to imbue his performance with a comic overtone, possibly to distinguish himself from John Hurt whose melancholic disposition is often associated with the role. Sometimes this works. Before settling down to listen to the first of the tapes, Wilson’s Krapp wants complete silence, which leads him to belligerently stare at audience members who are shuffling or coughing. At times, Wilson’s Krapp is less of a human and more of a sad, stylised clown, a Charlie Chaplin tottering the streets seeking affection and nourishment, which effectively epitomizes Beckett’s maxim from Endgame: ‘nothing is funnier than unhappiness’.
And yet the strongest moments came when Wilson suspends his urge to tragically clown and allows Beckett’s lyricism to take the lead. The simple yet beautiful recounting of youthful memories, intimate encounters and passionate career aspirations splinter Krapp into two people, exposing how identity can be fractured more easily than we may think.
One of the most engaging aspects of the evening is A.J. Weissbard’s crisp lighting design. At Krapp’s darker moments, the stage descends into an overcast shadow, and then snaps back into sterile cold washes at his more alert or playful flashes. Yet the most ingenious lighting instances come when the stage is lit with a monochrome hue, leaving the audience unable to distinguish between black and white or light and dark, which no doubt leaves Krapp with a similar internal dilemma.
Beckett can often be slow and tedious in performance. I sensed that a lot of the audience was dozing throughout the 70 minute running time, jolting awake at the sound of thunder that shakes Krapp’s den. While the text can sometimes be laborious, Wilson’s dynamism and the striking design made this one of the best and most gripping performances of a Beckett play I have ever seen.