An old man with a corona of gray hair, (Brian Hemmingsen) sits like a sphinx, staring straight out in silence, palms face down on a beat-up desk. Let that image of Krapp nest in your mind. Rest assured, we’re in Beckett’s theatre-of-the-absurd, where every word is cherished, like a profound poem.
As Krapp stirs to life, he searches his pockets for a key ring, peers at one in the dim light, hobbles to the front of the desk, unlocks two drawers and rummages for a tape until he takes out a banana. It’s a great discovery; his face is ecstatic. He caresses and sniffs it; bows to it. (Big audience laugh.) He peels it, drops the skin; he takes a bite and forgets what he’s doing. So why are we laughing? Every breath Krapp exhales sounds like a growl but may be a death rattle.
What are we to make of this bedraggled man, who wears dirty white shoes, no socks? Krapp, like a clown, slips on the banana peel, and Hemmingsen completes the deft comic routine with a slow-motion pratfall to the floor. Then he goes off through an upstage arch, that’s as inviting as a black hole for episodes of banging metal, and the endless sound of the clicking heels of his shoes on a hardwood floor. It’s all humorous until Krapp wheezes laboriously to bring stacks of tin cans and a cumbersome, old-fashioned, two-reel tape recorder to the desktop. Then somewhat dejected, he plays the tapes as if he has no hope of finding anything meaningful.
Krapp’s Last Tape, Samuel Beckett’s most autobiographical play, written in 1958, is a hymn to failure and despair, but under the direction of David Bryan Jackson, it’s entertaining and illuminating, not depressing. It’s about identity, loneliness in aging, the loss of loved ones, love, and most painful of all – memory. What we forget, did it ever exist? Hemmingsen, who’s played Hamlet before, brings an inner radiance to a tour-de-force performance that holds us rapt. He plays Krapp like an impresario who spits on his hands and lets the spool unwind in a last gasp attempt to put his life in order. By stopping and starting the tape in his frantic search for himself, he pushes his own buttons.
A look of perplexed anxiety comes over Hemmingsen’s face. His identity changes with time. Dramatic tension is created between a 69-year-old man listening and reacting to a stranger-himself at 39. A stranger believes he’s experienced the epiphany. “…when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision at last.” Krapp frantically fast-forwards the tape, impatient with the random narrative. What’s the vision? It’s “….clear to me at last that the dark I have always struggled to keep under is in reality….” Krapp curses with self-disgust and shuts off the tape. A mournful gaze follows. “Hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. Thank God, that’s over and done with.”
But then comes Beckett’s characteristic negation of what he’s just asserted. Another punch of the “on” button, reveals Krapp’s younger voice filled with optimism and hope. “Life is filled with “aspirations…..and resolutions,….” The mature Krapp breaks out with cynical, self-mockery. What happens to all the suffering, he asks, remembering the death of his mother and his literary failures in the mass market. All for nothing. All meaningless. But the younger man’s rapturous memories also are taped, such as a flashback to an exquisitely tender description of love-making in a flat-bottomed boat. “We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, back and forth……” But even these memories of lyrical bliss are deflated. Krapp exits upstage. The pop of a cork backstage tells us he tipples a little.
Beckett as a Nobel Laureate (1969) claimed that words had no power to give any kind of meaning. Yet no one depends more on the expression of words than Beckett’s characters, especially Krapp, who resorts to using a huge dictionary for a forgotten word. Why does Krapp struggle against the despair, continue to listen and make tapes? Is the piecing together of the puzzle of the human condition worth it? Beckett is telling us the battle against the dimming light is hopeless but we keep going against the dark.
Hemmingsen acts it out with dignity and bravado, with the sweeping gesture of any man taking command of his life. And slowly a mundane apparatus made for the spoken word becomes a brilliant poetic – if not painful – metaphor. The way the mind rewinds, fast forwards in reaction to associations but can never define precisely. The offstage technical work of timing those on-again, off-again sound cues by sound designer Dan Martin and director David Bryan Jackson, is commendable.
What’s great about this theatre piece is that it is like Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We can see it over and over and experience it differently each time, even though the Beckett estate lays down strict rules – a director cannot change one line in the original script. And even though Beckett claimed he wanted his dialogue spoken ritualistically without too much “color,” but ultimately gave in to his actors, Hemmingsen’s expressive face and acting lift the words off the page and make the trip to Arlington well worth it. The play doesn’t delineate or define what our existence is. It just suggests the biggest contradiction of all: Krapp’s failure to capture his life on a tape, even though at the end, the tape reels on in silence.
Thanks to this production, I came away, not in despair, but with a sense of renewed peace. Keegan always takes chances and that’s what I loved about this project.
Krapp’s Last Tape
By Samuel Beckett
Directed by David Bryan Jackson
Produced by Keegan Theatre’s New Island Project
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: 1:10 with no intermission
When: Thursdays-Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3, to March 14, 2009.
Where: Theatre on the Run, 3700 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, VA
Info and Reservations: 703-892-0202 or email [email protected]