A man sitting behind a table; two men sitting on a park bench. These are the settings in the Beckett Double Bill currently online from the Jermyn Street Theatre and directed by theatre legend Sir Trevor Nunn. The two pieces Krapp’s Last Tape and The Old Song actually played as part of a triple bill earlier this year when I first saw them live. The third play in the sequence, Eh Joe, is missing from the line up on video which is somewhat ironic as it was originally written not as a piece for the theatre but for the screen; go figure! However, the setting for this was a man sitting stock still on the edge of a bed and at the time I wrote “while these locations are utterly faithful to the script instructions given by the writer, this particular combination of sedentary pieces makes for a fairly soporific and enervating evening”. I think removing one of the pieces actually works to the overall production’s advantage as now there is not the totally deadening effect of the middle piece. However, overall my opinion has not really changed that much.
The two plays which are left are variations on the themes of aging, loss and memory featuring elderly men looking back over their lives, haunted by the sounds of the past and filled with regret. This is not to say that anyone here is going to go quietly; Dylan Thomas’ “Rage into the dying of the light” springs to mind. But there is a sense of hopelessness and ennui which is just a bit too near the mark for these “Covid is still around so is there going to be a resurgence?” days. Possibly it was the wrong choice of viewing on a day when the infection rates shot up exponentially.
The more well-known piece of the two is Krapp’s Last Tape. In this, the aging protagonist prepares to set down another part of his remembrances in the form of an audio memoir but first he replays extracts from a tape made thirty years previously – part of this recording is the central character reflecting on an even earlier recording he has just relistened to. As usual with Beckett there are more questions than answers. For whose benefit is the recording being made? Is the taping an annual/regular event (the spools – how Krapp loves that word – he has amassed seem to suggest so)? At each recording, is it part of the ritual to listen to an earlier one? Is this really his last attempt at a recording; if so, what is then to become of him? James Hayes as Krapp handles these existential dilemmas very well and, especially when for long stretches he is listening to his younger self, adeptly exhibits the sort of annoyance and even disgust that anyone might register when confronted with their own earlier inadequacies. Hayes is the sort of actor who has never quite made the big time but always gives thoughtful and measured performances and this is certainly the case here.
Niall Buggy and David Thelfall make an interesting double act in the lesser known The Old Song. Playing long time acquaintances Gorman and Cream they reminisce about their pasts and voice their concerns about their respective presents. They are in effect as much voices from each other’s pasts as is Krapp’s younger self. Both Buggy and Threlfall handle the dialogue extremely well. The two characters are, seemingly, subject to memory lapses and their constant minor bickering about how, where and when things occurred provides some much-needed conflict. The piece is eerily reminiscent of the repartee of Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting For Godot and may well have been an early sketch for the more famous play. However, ultimately it is a little rough round the edges and probably one for Beckett scholars and completists only.
It is easy to see why Trevor Nunn brought these pieces together. He has reached a time in his own life when age and the past are probably of huge significance to him. He certainly has a wealth of his own theatrical memories to draw on – not least composing the lyric for the most well-known song from a certain feline oriented musical. However, I found the pairing ultimately disappointing. The critic Vivian Mercier famously described Godot as a two-act play where “nothing happens … twice”; this production is an evening where nothing happens…repeatedly. It is all a bit too minimalist, a bit too samey, a bit too soporific. While it is true that often less is more this can, as here, be taken too far.
Beckett Double Bill can be accessed via the Jermyn Street Theatre website. Click here
A further set of Beckett’s shorter pieces are collected together as Fragments. Click here for a review and access details
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