Krapp’s Last Tape

 

Gate Theatre, Dublin Most theatre actors will instinctively manoeuvre themselves towards the brighter pockets of the stage, a talent charmingly known as “finding their light”. In the Gate’s new production of Krapp’s Last Tape, the masterful Michael Gambon displays a more playful and moving insight by doing the precise opposite: he loses his. Hovering for a moment at the peripheries of the space in the early moments of Samuel Beckett’s short play, Gambon sways between light and darkness. Now you see him, now you don’t.

In the silent stretch of its opening, even a slapstick routine with a banana skin treats mortality without a shred of sentimentality. When dignity deserts us, there’s only a sliver of difference between death and a pratfall.

On the occasion of his birthday, Krapp shuffles around his room – here, no more than a desk, an overhanging white light and an all-engulfing void – ritualistically assembling his reel-to-reel tape recorder and gathering the spools of annual recordings from years before. As he listens to a tape made 30 years previously, Gambon’s performance is not exactly a one-man show, but a nuanced depiction in which he plays opposite himself.

“Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for 30 years ago,” he says, and as the elder Krapp luxuriates in the senses, savours the word “Spooool!”, grows impatient with the younger man’s intellectual pretensions, then becomes fixated on a tender evocation of a doomed love, the voice we hear and the man we see become distinct characters. Who we are is not constant through the years, Gambon’s performance reminds us, but a battle of gained and lost ground, of experience and erosion.

If Krapp’s Last Tapefeels more unsettling than many other Beckett works, it is because of its sombre air of finality against a universe of otherwise stubborn persistence.

Vladimir and Estragon go on waiting, Winnie goes on living, the Unnamable simply goes on. But Krapp, the title tells us, will not.

Gambon and Colgan may be prone to one priapic banana gag too many, while finding seemingly limitless and moving possibilities in how Gambon’s hand explores his face, but in the play’s final moments they know when to stop. Peering out at us, or perhaps into the abyss, Gambon is so hauntingly still that his image becomes unshakeable. The tape is literally an act of self-preservation, but now the reel slowly runs out with devastating meaning. Gambon doesn’t have to say a word.

Until May 15