The intimacy afforded by the Burton Taylor studio perfectly compliments a production of two of Samuel Beckett’s darkest, most challenging and most demanding plays: Krapp’s Last Tape and the significantly shorter, bleaker Rockaby. Moreover, the decision by Perspex Productions to stage these two plays back-to-back, without an interval, represents what is fairly described in the programme as a ‘never-seen-before combination’ of ‘two pieces that seem to carry a natural dialogue with one another.’ It is an ambitious, audacious pitch, and I was eager to see how the production itself would fulfil it.
The challenges of performing a one-act, one-man play, especially one such as Krapp’s Last Tape in which almost half of the monologue is delivered to the audience through the ‘tape’ of the play’s title, are manifold for the actor. Thankfully, Christopher Page as Krapp is consistently mesmeric: he is ragged, manic, wistful, pathetic, and finally defiant in the face of the bleakness that encompasses him. As ever with Beckett, the line between humour and pathos is so thin as to be almost imperceptible, and Page displays the requisite subtlety needed to save the play from falling on the side of absurd frippery or morose self-indulgence.
One of the most striking things about this rendition of Krapp’s Last Tape is its physicality, a quality which is accentuated by (but which cannot, of course, be solely attributed to) the close confines of the space. Page has wonderful gravity: there is theatrical animus in every slumped shoulder, dragged sole, contorted grimace. It is hard to make the peeling of a banana (twice, I might add) a tragicomic spectacle, but Page manages it. The charged languor that he maintains throughout makes his breaks from it all the more visceral and shocking; last night, the audience were involved to the point of being truly startled by a bang of his fist on the wooden table.
Then Rockaby comes along. It is important to note the extent to which the director, Beatrix Grant, wishes to emphasise the ‘natural dialogue’ that exists between the two plays: in place of an interval, there is a brief interlude in which Krapp and ‘W’ (Natalie Lauren), the speaker of Rockaby, change the staging while remaining in character. This decision highlights an essential continuity between the two pieces, and it is true that both plays feature an isolated, largely ventriloquised speaker meditating on the bleakness of their own predicament. It is also crucial to note their differences, however, and by placing them back-to-back Perspex Productions is arguably doing a minor disservice to both. Krapp’s Last Tape, for all its experimentalism, is an emotionally resonant, cathartic play that explores deep and fundamental human truths. The far shorter Rockaby, meanwhile, is far more akin to a piece of avant-garde performance art. The emotional gravity of the ending of Krapp’s Last Tape is therefore lost in the abstraction of Rockaby, and the more intellectual pleasures that the latter play affords are lessened by comparison with the emotional heft that the previous play carried. Mention must be made, however, of Lauren’s performance, capturing W’s eerie frailty with unerring delicacy and poise. The staging of Rockaby is also particularly superlative: the lighting, as repetitious and trembling as W’s monologue, perfectly captures the mood of alienation and confinement.
What we have, then, are two plays, both brilliantly acted and directed, but that are slightly dulled through their placement together. Don’t get me wrong: this is an excellent production, and one that is well worth seeing – it is just that perhaps, in considering the ‘natural dialogue’ between the two plays, Beatrix Grant and Perspex Productions could have been more sensitive to Beckett’s choice of monologue for these pieces, and the particular resonances that come with the presence of a single voice.