Krapp’s Last Tape. Sheffield Crucible Studio. 03-07-14

A Sheffield Theatres ProductionKrapp's Last Tape

Richard Wilson as Krapp. Production photograph by Mark Douet.

Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.”

When you walk into the space it takes only a few seconds to register that the Crucible’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape is going to be something very special. In the centre of the darkened space is a slowly revolving shed, perfectly detailed inside and out and cleverly designed so that we can see everything that we need to within its chaotic, cramped interior from all angles as it turns. It is surrounded by low audience benches and a ring of small round speakers suspended at knee height. Those of us at the front are within a few feet of the action. Krapp is already inside sitting in front of a battered reel to reel tape recorder- of course he is as he spends hours in there, alone with his thoughts. It is an astonishing setting for the play, created by Alex Lowde, I doubt that you will ever see a better one, so much detail and thought has gone into getting it exactly right. It almost feels as though you have already seen the drama in full as you peer in at Krapp through the windows. Becket conceived his plays as a whole theatrical package of light, sound, setting and text and that is exactly what you get from this wonderful production. Richard Wilson, who plays Krapp, must have been thrilled when he first saw it. If it wasn’t so very unfair to a fine performance I would say that half his job was already done when he sat down inside it. It is also quite beautifully and subtly lit by Hansjorg Schmidt and that really matters for this play.

Krapp has been putting his thoughts down on tape for a very long time and he has been left with a record of his younger self. This is what he has been steeling himself to explore on this, his 69th birthday. During the course of the play he listens to the tape that he made when he was 39. As we watch a bitter, disappointed man whose life has been unfulfilled listen to his younger, still hopeful self, we hear one of his opportunities for happiness being missed. It is a sombre business. Beckett is a bold, uncompromising writer who leaves us no room for consolation. We all share Krapp’s predicament as the spool of our life slowly runs out and those of us who are old enough can feel the pang of our own hurts and missed opportunities as we watch him struggle with his past. In an age where many lives are being recorded on social media in ever more detail, every meal photographed, every hope set down, every slight revenged, Beckett’s play, written over fifty years ago, has great resonance. In the future many people will be able to look back at their young selves in what may well be horrifying detail. You can’t rewrite your past to suit your own ideas of what you would have liked it to be when the truth is staring you in the face. In allowing himself to face his younger self Krapp performs an act of great bravery and self examination.

Beckett is a very precise, economical writer who has provided every detail needed, but he also makes great demands on his actor. The clues are all there in the text and the stage directions, but it is up to the actor to bring them to the surface and show the thought processes of the man. Richard Wilson does this impeccably. You can see the thoughts chasing across his face and this makes every moment quite mesmerising to watch. I don’t think that there was a single moment where I didn’t feel that I knew what was going on inside his head.

Polly Findlay, Alex Lowde and above all Richard Wilson as Krapp have joined forces to give us, quite simply, as good an account of Samuel Beckett’s great writing as you are ever likely to see. A young man who left the theatre alongside me was saying to his friends, “That was quite remarkable” and that is exactly the right word. This is a piece of true theatre that leaves you a different person after seeing it, a short, intense time spent in another place. You had to be there…….. and I will never forget that I was.

Waiting For Godot. West Yorkshire Playhouse and Talawa Theatre Company. West Yorkshire Playhouse

Waiting For Godot is one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century. It brings us face to face with what it means to be human, what it really means when you strip away all the distractions and consolations that we surround ourselves with, and it allows us no escape. Like Vladimir and Estragon we are also forced to wait, and even when we claim to be going somewhere we are still in the same place, still human, still faced with our own mortality. While this is undeniably bleak, especially given that Beckett does not allow his characters the consolation of faith in a divine being (there is a reason why Godot never turns up) and there are some searingly chilling statements and speeches, there is also great humour and absurdity in the human condition. Beckett is a fearless writer, and because he is prepared to face the reality of being human head on he is also able to show the absurdity behind our predicament and allow us to laugh along with the pain. Few writers have ever tackled this to such magnificent effect. It is scary stuff- not for the faint hearted- but if you allow yourself to feel the chill of the brevity of human life in speeches like:

“Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the gravedigger puts on the forceps.”

then you will feel the exhilaration of knowing that even in the face of that it is still possible to find joy.

“The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors. Let us not speak well of it either. Let us not speak of it at all. It is true the population has increased.”

Jeffrey Kissoon and Patrick Robinson. Production still by Richard Hubert Smith.

We are all waiting and we always have been, but people are still finding happiness, still loving. As Vladimir says in one of the plays most famous motifs, “there is nothing to be done.” What Beckett does, after showing us this reality, is celebrate the fact that the human spirit can carry on, driven by an inner strength and kindness in the face of tragedy and absurdity, and avoid despair. Vladimir and Estragon will be back again to wait as each new day dawns and however tedious and painful they may find it they will never give in. They may talk about hanging themselves but they won’t. There is something rather magnificent about that. They have accepted themselves and the reality of their situation in a way that Pozzo and Lucky, their “visitors” have not. Both Pozzo and Lucky are still fighting against the reality of their mortality, Pozzo by his cruelty and self obsession which gives him an illusion of control over his destiny, and Lucky by a mute acceptance which is a kind of blinkered anger, allowed release in only one terrifying burst showing us the horror of his interior turmoil when he allows it to surface.

Fisayo Akinade. Production still by Richard Hubert Smith.

Just these few thoughts will already make it clear to someone who is new to the play that this is not theatre for beginners. If you are going to put this one on stage you had better know exactly what you are doing or you are going to fall flat on your face. You can’t hide the fact that you don’t know what you are doing by extravagant scenery as Beckett stipulates that Vladimir and Estragon are waiting by a single tree, nor can you rely on flashy costumes, or improvisation. The dialogue is circular and choppy, cutting between the characters constantly, and it is built like a house of cards. If you want to succeed there is no alternative to simply understanding what the play is about. It’s a huge challenge and the only way to tackle it, particularly for the actors, is to jump in feet first and immerse yourself. Brave writing demands brave acting!

The 2012 production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is a co- production with Talawa Theatre Company. Talawa is an all black theatre company but while there are added resonances in the play to be found from this fact, I am going to gloss over this aspect as Beckett is just about as universal a writer as you can get and the only thing that matters is being human. The cast are all extraordinary actors who understand exactly what they are doing. Jeffery Kissoon and Patrick Robinson are a fine pairing as Vladimir and Estragon. Their timing is great, very important for the vaudeville elements of the couple’s interaction, and they are both very expressive, able to make us feel pathos and humour in quick succession. There is a wonderful moment where they hug and then slowly extricate themselves unsure just what they may have done, and we can feel the history between two characters who have relied on each other and endured so much for so long.

Guy Burgess. Production still by Richard Hubert Smith.

Cornell S John and Guy Burgess were a revelation to me as Pozzo and Lucky, even though I know the play quite well and have seen it more than once. Cornell S John gave a performance of great style and attack which dug below the surface of the mindless cruelty of the character and allowed us to wonder at the reasons for it. As we saw more of him we were shown that it came from a compulsive need to control and dominate born out of his own sense of inadequacy and impotence in the face of despair. Guy Burgess as Lucky was both moving and terrifying in his stillness. His outburst of anger and despair was no surprise when Pozzo finally allowed him to speak. You had seen in his eyes from the moment he came on stage. A very fine actor indeed.

I am not going to forget Fisayo Akinade’s stage debut as the boy either. Being able to give a performance which is still and understated is not as easy as it seems and he has got off to a great start.

This was Ian Brown’s final production as director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse. He has given us ten very successful years and we have a lot to thank him for. I am glad that he will be back as a freelance director. I am sure that it is his guiding hand and understanding of the play  which lies behind a lot of the things which I admired about this production. Not that you would notice. He has allowed his actors to shine as the best directors always do.

I find Waiting For Godot deeply moving, quite terrifying and sometimes very funny. This production was able to give me that. I couldn’t really ask for more.

Happy Days. Crucible Theatre studio, Sheffield. 21-05-11

Winnie, the heroine of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, is trapped in a pile of rubble in the middle of a desert that immobilises her from the waist down. Her husband is close by but inaccessible, spending most of his time uncommunicative or hidden away down a hole. Her waking and sleeping are ruled by bells and she is forced to use the distraction offered by the contents of her bag to get her through life, rationing her happiness out carefully, finding pleasure in the grinding repetition of each day and never allowing herself to face the reality of her hopeless situation. Maybe she is right. Perhaps if she continues to be thankful for the tiny pleasures of her life and see them as “great mercies” in “another happy day” her situation isn’t so hopeless after all. She is a compulsive and entertaining communicator, even given the most unpromising circumstances, and she talks constantly to her husband whether he responds or not, grateful for any tiny sign of attention. Nothing stops her relentless flow of words, even though there is little which actually needs to be said.

If Winnie’s situation reminds you of your own life then that would not be surprising, as it describes the lives of all of us. We may not literally be immobilised in a heap of rubble but all of us are managing to get through life in spite of our own shortcomings, limitations and difficulties. The human spirit is a great survivor and Happy Days is Samuel Beckett’s hymn to the fact that human beings are able to find the strength to carry on even in the most terrible circumstances, even in the face of certain death. Few writers have faced mortality head on the way that he does in his writing, and without the humour and pity for humanity that leavens his bleak vision his plays would be almost intolerable to watch. When Winnie’s situation worsens in the second half of the play and we find her up to her neck in rubble the play darkens. She can no longer reach the comforting contents of her bag and her attempts to remain positive become more desperate and more tragic. She may still be able to pretend, but we no longer can. The next thing in line to be covered and silenced by the encroaching pile of rocks will be her mouth and when that happens it will be the end.

There are not many actresses who could take on Winnie and her torrent of words and bring her to life. The part is a kind of word mountain which has to be climbed and each of those words has been placed so carefully by Beckett, every one relying on the last, that if you stumble the whole lot may come tumbling down. He has left nothing to chance. Pauline McLynn is inspired casting to play her and at the preview I saw everything was already in place. She has great humour, elegance of gesture, a wonderfully expressive face which allows us to see what Winnie is thinking, and a likable and deeply sympathetic stage presence. It is a delicately judged, fine performance and one day she will be able to look back on it and feel proud.

Happy Days is not just about Winnie, it is also the story of a relationship, and Winnie’s almost silent husband Willie is beautifully played by Peter Gowan. He has a strong physical presence, which is a great counter to Winnie’s delicacy, and the moment late in the play when he erupts from the earth to try to reach her having finally made the effort to dress in a tattered evening suit is unforgettable. We long for him to succeed, but at the same time it is horribly clear that he won’t. It is too little too late, and his strength runs out, leaving her alone.

This is a complex and difficult play for a fairly new director to take on. Jonathan Humphreys has done a good job, helped by the fact that he found exactly the right Winnie. The design, by Lizzie Clachan, is rather beautiful. Winnie’s mound is a pile of small grey rocks, sitting in the middle of a desert diorama in pale blue, grey and sandy brown, strewn with tumbleweed, a reminder of the beauty that Winnie can’t reach.

Go and see this if you can, it is a rare chance to see a first rate production of one of Beckett’s finest plays in a small space where you can relish every detail. I expected great things of it and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Half. Photography by Simon Annand. Scarborough Art Gallery. 12-05-11

For anyone who has been going to the theatre regularly for the last thirty odd years as I have this exhibition is completely enchanting. Simon Annand has had the privilege of being allowed to photograph actors at close quarters during the half as they prepare to go on stage for roughly the same period of time as I have been sitting in audiences and he has made the most of it. It is a highly charged time, full of nervous anticipation, a great subject, and he has produced a dramatic, intimate and varied collection of images which take us into another world, a world between real life and make believe. It brought back great memories for me of both productions which I have seen and productions which I wish I had seen.

There are some lovely contrasts to enjoy. There are two Miss Adelaides from Guys and Dolls, Jane Krakowski at the Piccadilly in 2005, a beautifully lit thoughtful introspective study of concentration, and Imelda Staunton at the National Theatre in 1982, looking straight into the camera and posing gleefully in full costume on her way to the stage. Two pantomime performers are also portrayed very differently. A moving, timeless image of  a melancholy introspective Spike Milligan sitting staring into space preparing to go on as Spike the Stupid in Babes in the Wood at Chichester Festival Theatre in 1985 is set against a lovely image of Roger Lloyd Pack in full dame make up and padding, just lacking a frock. He is clearly preparing to go out and have a blast on stage in Dick Whittington at the Barbican in 2006, grinning happily and striking a pose with his hand on his hip. There are two Hamlets, Simon Russell Beale at the National in 2006, all nervous agitation seen through his dressing room window from a distance, and Ben Whishaw at the Old Vic in 2009, hair over his eye and flirting outrageously with the camera.

Some of the images are much more sombre. Nobody could ever describe preparing to go on in Rockaby, Samuel Beckett’s short but quite terrifying one woman play as preparing to have a blast and Billie Whitelaw’s portrait seen through her dressing room mirror at the Riverside studios in 1989 is a stark image of mortality. Her pale ghostly face is matched by what looks almost like a death mask next to her- the photograph of her face fully made up that she is using as a guide. Max Wall is preparing for another Beckett one man play, Krapp’s Last Tape, a huge challenge, and he is deadly serious and alone with his thoughts, already a world away.

It is sometimes easy to guess which actors enjoyed the moments of company and attention and which of them would probably rather have been left alone. Sarah Kestleman smokes a fag and grins knowingly at the camera before going on in Bussy D’Amboise at the Old Vic in 1987, while Alison Steadman looks up balefully from her script, interrupted in her preparations for Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Arts theatre in 2001. There is a lovely sequence of images of Jane Birkin, who is wonderfully expressive, captured as she talks and gesticulates clad in a simple white vest.

Sometimes the performance is already fully there and ready to hit the stage and sometimes it isn’t. Helen Mirren’s portrait taken as she strides down a corridor on her way to the stage at the National is most definitely of Phedre rather than the actress, while Daniel Radcliffe is still very much himself as he sits on the shelf in front of his dressing room mirror before a performance of Equus in 2009, still in his day clothes, with the beginnings of a soft fluffy beard and moustache shadowing his face. It is a touching portrait of a boy becoming a man, and it mirrors the enormous challenge that he had set himself by choosing to play a high profile, challenging stage part after enormous film success. He made himself very vulnerable by making that choice and took a great risk and this is all there in the portrait.

Sometimes it is the details that are moving. Perhaps a frozen moment, as in the portrait of Michael Williams where he completes his transformation for Two Into One at the Shaftesbury in 1984 by putting on a bowler hat. Two Into One is a Ray Cooney farce, but there is only a quiet wariness visible as he confronts himself in the mirror, while his wife smiles out from the wedding photo sitting next to him.

If you love theatre make sure that you see this exhibition. Even f you don’t you will still relish the skill of a wonderful photographer who uses the light and mirrors of the dressing room cleverly to illuminate and frame his subjects. I am glad that it had a showing at the V&A in London before coming up north to Scarborough. It was richly deserved.