It is difficult to imagine a more complete embodiment of Krapp


CULTURE SHOCK:Michael Gambon is an alchemist of the soul, summing up the entirety of Beckett’s most personal play in just one look, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

AS MICHAEL Gambon slowly raises his great head into the light for the first time, dragging it up with his hand as though it were not attached to his body, you immediately see something very strange. His face looks gaunt.

What is strange is that Michael Gambon is not gaunt. He has large, heavy features. Yet here is that face, long and thin and bony. It is the ghost of a young man’s face within the frame of an old man’s countenance. And there, in that look, is the entirety of Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape.

If words like “magic” are used too lightly in the theatre, this is an electrifying reminder that sometimes no other word will do.

Krapp’s Last Tapeis arguably Beckett’s most personal play. It hovers over aspects both of his own life (his relationship with his mother, for example) and of his literary vocation. Krapp’s overwhelming vision, recorded on tape 30 years before we encounter him, is that “the dark I have always struggled to keep under” is in fact his proper territory.

These personal truths are refracted through a double haunting. In Beckett’s final twist on Irish Gothic, the play is a ghost story. Krapp is haunted by his younger self, the pompous but expressive and ambitious voice recorded on the tapes he has made every year on his birthday. But Krapp is also a kind of failed Beckett – a Beckett who has given up everything to devote himself to the darkness but has achieved nothing as a result.

This doubleness means the actor playing Krapp has to be at once ghostly and real, ethereal and utterly physical. It is foolish to use the word “definitive” about a form as fluid as theatre, but in this respect it is difficult to imagine a more complete embodiment of the role than Gambon’s.

Dublin has been graced with superb versions of Krapp: Rick Cluchey in Beckett’s own production; David Kelly and John Hurt at the Gate. But Gambon’s combination of the corporeal and the spectral is truly uncanny in itself and entirely pertinent to the play.

As well as being his most personal play, Krapp is also Beckett’s most Irish stage work – or, to be more precise, his most Dublin. The names (Krapp, “Bianca in Kedar Street”) may be vaguely continental but the imagined landscape is that of the Dublin and Wicklow coast and hills of Beckett’s youth. There are the “great granite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse”. There is the desire to: “Be again on Croghan on a Sunday morning with the bitch, stop and listen to the bells.” And above all, there is the voice. Presumably because it is so deeply rooted in his Dublin past, Beckett wrote the play specifically for the cracked, hollow Dublin voice of Patrick Magee.

One side of Gambon’s triumph is his brilliant use of this Dublin voice. He picks up on the line Krapp uses twice: “The voice! Jesus!” The first time we hear it, it is spoken on tape by the 39-year-old Krapp, referring to still earlier tapes of his younger self. The next time, it is the 69-year-old Krapp listening to that 39-year-old self. Each version of Krapp, in other words, finds the voice of his younger self ridiculous and almost unrecognisable.

Krapp is, besides, losing his command of words. He has to look up in the dictionary a word (“viduity”) he used with confidence on the tape 30 years earlier. The precision with which he once used words like “equinox” has been replaced by his childish delight in his elongated pronunciation of “spooool”.

What Gambon does with this is to create two voices, utterly different yet recognisably those of the same man. The voice on tape is not just younger and more articulate, it is more cultured and more neutral in accent. The “live” voice is more gutter Dublin, more unpolished, more childish. Krapp’s voice now is at once older (more gnarled and weary) and younger (more primitively Dublin and less self-aware). The effect is spine-tingling, all Beckett’s philosophical concerns with the passage of time and the continuity of the self concentrated into a set of vocal sounds.

Gambon has an extraordinary ability to be both hulking and deft, both bearlike and delicate in his movements. He uses it here to almost paranormal effect – to suggest the younger man inside the older. The old man is brilliantly realised in slow, shambling and fumbling movements. He picks up, for example, on the notion of Krapp as being almost blind, using his hands to feel his way around Krapp’s desk. But then, within this frame, Gambon has fluttering moments of extraordinary lightness and elegance. There is a brilliant mini-ballet at the start, when Krapp moves in and out of the light (checking, as it were, whether he exists if he is not being perceived by the non-existent deity) and Gambon’s dancer’s feet seem to move independently of his big body. Again, the effect is heartbreaking, allowing the ghost of the past self to fuse for an instant with the present.

Michael Colgan’s production is beautifully judged, both in what it allows Gambon to do and what it refrains from doing itself. There have been all sorts of things done with the simple set-up of the play, some in Beckett’s own productions: having Krapp throw his banana skin into the audience; letting the single light above his desk be knocked so it swings; having Krapp walk over the old tapes he has swept from the table.

Colgan avoids all this business. He knows that when a genius is at work, revealing the human truth and poignancy of a masterpiece in every look and gesture, the wise thing is to clear the space for him. Within that space, an alchemist of the soul transforms loss and failure into an epic of memory and yearning.