Friday, 13 March 2015

Krapp's last tape - Unity Theatre - 10 and 12/03/2015

A memorable Equinox?

Graeme Phillips has chosen to begin his new production of Beckett's 1958 play by screening his little known "Film" made in 1964. This may seem an unusual directorial choice but it works astonishingly well.

On the opening night the film had to be omitted for technical reasons, and without it the play alone stands as a great achievement for Phillips and his solo actor Nick Birkinshaw. Seeing Film and Krapp spliced seamlessly together on stage two evenings later I could really see the reason for the pairing. The two works, each tell a story of a man examining his past, but in one he cannot bear to have it seen or recalled at all, while in the other he seems intent on examining and preserving every detail of it.

Film essentially has two characters, O and E. O is performed in silence by a 69 year old Buster Keaton. We begin with a shot of an all-seeing eye (E), personified throughout by the camera - or us, the audience. We then follow O as he scurries through an urban landscape, bumping into two startled and horrified passers by, and heads into a run-down building which he appears to occupy. He plans to deal with an envelope full of photographs documenting his history but before he can do this he has to shut out the world, covering the window, the mirror, the parrot and the goldfish, ejecting the dog and cat and destroying a painting of what looks like a pagan God on the wall. He even has to turn the folder sideways, as the eyelets that fasten it appear like eyes to him.

Having reviewed the photographs he tears them to shreds, only to see E move round to face him. He gives a look of terror or despair and covers his face, and we return to the eye as the film ends. The clarity of the general photography (our viewpoint as E) is contrasted by blurred shots when we see objects from O's point of view.


And then the lights rise for us to meet Krapp, staring blankly toward us across his desk in a small, dim pool of light from an anglepoise lamp. (During “Film” we saw the back of his motionless head as he viewed the screen with us.)

The set is a small rectangular platform representing his room, its grubby carpet strewn with dried-up banana skins which overflow from a waste paper basket. The desk contains a large open reel tape recorder and he is surrounded by stacks of boxes, most of which are full of tape spools.

What follows is little short of a masterclass in acting, with the first 15 minutes or so delivered wordlessly, until Krapp consults his ledger and goes looking for the spool he recorded 30 years ago on his 39th birthday. From this point onward the words flow in abundance, both from the 69 year old on stage and from his younger self on the tape recording.

There is tremendous colour in Nick Birkinshaw’s voice and he captures both ages of his character in his delivery. Like a lot of Beckett’s writing, there is a great deal of introspection as Krapp revisits his earlier self and finds disbelief, nostalgia, regret and astonishment as he listens to himself. Birkinshaw’s ability to draw us in and hold our attention never ceases to amaze, and after 2 viewings I could still have gone back for more and not caught all the nuances in the performance.

Beckett captures extremes in his work, often placing his characters in some sort of emotional or physical trap, and the juxtaposition of these two works somehow illuminates and elevates both of them in their strange, obsessive, opposing standpoints.

Set, costume and lighting here were by Phil Saunders and Ashley Shairp. The gradually shifting colours in the light, much of which comes from within the set, builds an atmosphere which is enhanced by subtle but detailed sound design from Patrick Dineen.

As Graeme Phillips steps back from his position as Artistic Director of Unity we have every hope that this will give him more opportunity to directing work for these stages, which he has been associated with for over 30 years.

Krapp’s Last Tape plays at Unity One until Saturday evening.

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