Life is Krapp [by James Wenley]
It is tempting to interpret Breath as an encapsulation of the ultimate message of all of Samuel Beckett’s plays: you’re born, life is rubbish, you die, and then it happens again to someone else. Breath is all of 40 seconds. Spoiler alert: we hear a baby’s cry, the lights fade up as we hear the inhale of a breath, we see a static image of a landscape filled with plastics and pollution, and then the lights fade out on the exhale. While Breath is one of three Beckett plays that make up the evening, maybe we could have got the essential point if we’d just viewed only this one. If we collected our our tickets, chatted in the foyer, had our tickets checked by the usher, found our seats, and 40 seconds later, curtain call. That would have been very Beckett. But then, we would have missed all the rest of the Krapp.
As curated in Breath: Three Samuel Beckett works, Breath (1969) the play (or “performance installation” as performer Edward Newborn describes it) makes for a curious intermission between That Time (1976), and Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). Wedged between these two, it almost feels like Breath itself hasn’t quite been given justice. Beckett’s precise instructions calls for miscellaneous rubbish to be scattered on the floor (“No verticals, all scattered and lying”), and I wonder if this effect would have made a tangible difference compared with director Paul Gittin’s choice to mediate our experience by displaying instead a photograph on a screen. As it is, it is one of the enduring images from the night.
That Time is much longer, and feels longer still. The residual image is Edward Newborn’s face spotlighted, popping out of the slit in the black curtain, raised as high as the low ceiling at Q Vault will allow (Beckett imagined it as being 10 feet above stage level). His eyes close, and we hear voices A, B and C, all recorded by Newborn in an Irish accent, relaying different stages of life in a stream-of-consciousness (there is no punctuation in the printed text) reflecting on “that time”, images and moments from the past. In the “this time” of the theatre, it becomes a drama of attention and search for meaning. I watch the micro-movements of Newborn’s face, the struggle to remain stationary, and a solitary animated hair on his head rebelling against this stillness. Then my eyes become blurred and I have to look away into the darkness, attempting to focus instead on the voices. The recordings are not easily accessible – they speak of a very different time and place – and without context it is difficult to find coherency in the Joycian blur. Snatches of phrases make an impression: “just a murmur one thing could ever bring tears”; “never the same after that never quite the same”; “keep the void out”. The effect is of gaining access to the listener’s interior, but remaining excluded. The listener knows what the voices mean, but we don’t, and instead project our meanings to try to make sense of it. In a repeated action Newborn would open his eyes, and we could see powerful emotion within them. That image was extremely affecting.
If That Time makes for a profound yet frustrating experience, and Breath is glibly profound and too short to be frustrating, these preceding plays have nevertheless prepared us well for highlight of the evening, Krapp’s Last Tape. Revived 30 years after Newborn’s performance in the same role in a Theatre Corporate production of the play, this is as a definitive performance of Beckett’s performance as you are likely to see of Beckett’s masterpiece. Appearing like he has come straight off the stage of a performance of Waiting for Godot, Newborn plays Beckett’s sad clown Krapp with wit and pathos. On the occasion of Krapp’s 69th birthday, he listens to a tape made 30 years ago (yes, the very tape made for that Theatre Corporate production) and makes a new tape to record his reflections on his past year.
The site of Krapp’s archaic tape machine becomes an object of fascination, its anachronism making it arguably a much more potent symbol in 2015. Who would record themselves like this now? How do we chronicle our lives? It would go straight onto the computer, accessible with a click of the button. Or perhaps we could go time-travelling through our Facebook profiles, confronted by an image of ourselves that is not ourself. But Krapp’s spools (a word to revel in) have a corporeality to them that digital files do not. What surprises then is how rough Krapp treats them at times, agitatedly feeding it round the machine to find his desired recording. In fact, he takes much more care with stroking, peeling and eating a banana (but not where he throws the skin). Read into that as you like. In any case, the recordings are a potent theatrical device as old Krapp reacts to his younger self. “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago”, he scoffs, “hard to believe I was ever as bad as that”. This is the tragedy of life, a play that opens up the gulf between the present and the unknowable past. There’s regret, inertia, but also, perhaps, a degree of existential acceptance.
Beckett was a great theatrical experimenter and provocateur, and I wonder what the moment would have been like when these pieces were performed for the first time. In this program, in this time, they are treated reverentially, like an old ritual being re-enacted. You don’t go to enjoy these plays necessarily, though I certainly enjoy Newborn’s performance as Krapp. Instead, this is a program reflect on. Inhale deeply.
Breath is presented by Mirror Theatre Productions and plays at Q Vault until 18th April. Details see Q.