Breath // Three Samuel Beckett Works

John Daly-Peoples • NBR

"... it provides a fleeting insight into the despair, speculation and the pleasure of revisiting the past without bothering about the future."

Goethe once wrote “Ein alter Mann ist stets ein König Lear” (An old man is always a King Lear).

He should have waited a few centuries when his contemporary version would have it that “An old man is always a Krapp.” This is apparent in the new production of Krapp’s Last Tape at Q Theatre in which an aging man contemplates his past. It is part of a three-work show also featuring That Time and Breath two shorter works that precede Krapp. That Time features Edward Newborn’s face jutting through the curtain, eyes shut, only briefly opening them to confront the audience. While his head remains motionless three voices (recordings of his own voice) present different points in his life, possibly as a child, in middle age and as an older person. There is a sense of poetic rhythm as the voices alternate in creating the various images and themes so that they form an oral three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Then the short work Breath, which features some heavy breathing, punctuated by a child crying, with the stage a metaphorical wasteland filled with rubbish and a large doll.

These two plays work as an introduction to Krapp’s Last Tape providing a dreamlike reverie in the case of That Time and a more political vignette in the case of Breath.

The action of Krapp’s Last Tape takes place in Krapp’s office or studio. It is his 69th birthday and he is about to record his annual tape recording of reflections on the past year of his life. Before doing this, he listens to a tape recording he made 30 years before in which he reflects on his even earlier life That this is his last tape brings with it some intimations of mortality as well as evidence of a life not fully lived.

Krapp is something of a washed up artist, a writer, possibly a dramatist. He acknowledges that he has sold only a few copies of his latest, possibly only, book and that he has never realised his full potential.

As with many of Beckett’s other works, the play explores the way in which we, or at least the artist or actors on stage try to make sense of the world – through language, analysis and contemplation. But it is always an impossible task and, as with Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, there is no resolution, answer or understanding. It is the plight of modern man to fail in trying to understand their predicament.

Added to this is what seems to be Beckett's fascination or anxiety about the passage of time and the process of ageing This is all bound up in the role of Krapp, who is a strange mixture of clown, stand-up comedian, philosopher and artist. He is surrounded by his past in the form of boxes of tapes, some written records and reference books. This is his past which anchors him, providing him with his life but it also restrains and inhibits him

As Krapp the older listens to his younger self, he laughs at his jokes, sympathises with his observations and is drawn into the emotional life of his former self. Ultimately, he rejects his earlier self as just a “stupid bastard." Edward Newborn inhabits the character of Krapp, or rather the two Krapps – the one on stage and the one of 30 years before on tape with a supreme sureness and precision. His Krapp has intense realism as well as being a metaphorical, almost abstract creation. He is obviously a younger man playing an older one, employing the techniques of the actor. He is able to pull off the old gag of slipping on a banana skin, balance buffoonery with serious contemplation as well as wallow in Beckett’s agonising silences. He invests Krapp with a poignant pathos managing to have the character express a sense of loneliness, without friends, with only half-fulfilled memories and ambitions.

But there is also a sense of self-deception, that his loss and his lack of fulfilment is not of his own making. That self-deception also becomes something of a metaphor for the deception and the truth inherent in theatre itself.

Newborn is particularly fine in his Proustian-like descriptions of his romantic encounter with a young woman in a boat. He keeps replaying the section where he speaks about lying “down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her.” It is as though he is recreating in his mind the sensations of heat, youth and sensuality.

For the audience it provides a fleeting insight into the despair, speculation and the pleasure of revisiting the past without bothering about the future.

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