Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fond Memories :Krapps Last Tape by Samuel Beckett at the Duchess Theatre

Every year on his birthday Krapp, now 69 and an unsuccessful author, makes a voice tape recalling highlights of the previous year. A scruffy alcoholic ('1700 hours on licensed premises') he's enjoyed a string of relationships with women and replays a tape made thirty years earlier, describing a sexual encounter in a boat. His monologue, punctuated by fits of anger and drinking, expresses regret for a 'misspent' life devoted to words. As he listens to his early voice he says it's 'hard to believe I was ever as bad as that.'

Michael Gambon is a perfect choice for this play, which has long stretches of stage 'business' while Krapp shambles about the stage eating bananas, absent at intervals when liquid being poured into a glass sounds offstage, opening and shutting drawers and messing about with spools of tape. Gambon's slow gestures and immobile face, the mouth almost permanently agape in a surprised O, his wild hair sticking out above raddled cheeks, presents a touching portrait of disillusioned old age. The sudden rages which scatter boxes and tapes are all the more striking because Gambon is a big man.

At 50 minutes with no supporting work - Beckett's shorter plays are often performed in pairs - this would seem poor value for anyone paying full-price for their seat. On the other hand, Michael Gambon's performance on a stage minimally furnishes with a table and chair under a single spotlight, is remarkable.

As a rule I don't rub shoulders with the famous, or even the moderately well-known. But I do remember a time when Michael Gambon bought me a pint. in the late 1970s I directed annual musicals at a girls' school in Camberwell - joint sixth-form productions with Archbishop Tennyson's school for boys at The Oval. Gambon's son played in the orchestra - I think it was trumpet. Maybe it was Gilbert & Sullivan, the deputy head's favourite, or Oklahomah, which I was allowed to direct in my final year at the school.

I crossed Camberwell New Road to the pub after the last performance, was warmly greeted and congratulated by the great actor and asked what I'd like to drink.

It's something I've been reminded of every time I've seen him in a stage production, from Shakespeare to Alan Aykbourn. Most recently he's appeared in four Harry Potter films.

For me his most memorable performance was in the title role of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective on TV. His nervous anticipatory monologue then, as 'nurse' Joanne Whalley massaged cream into his psoriatic skin, contrasts with the poignant regret of the current performance. Gambon has the great classic actor's gift of conveying complex emotions expressed in poetic language.

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