Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Play It Again, Sam: Andrew Billen on a Role That Michael Gambon Was Born to Play

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Play It Again, Sam: Andrew Billen on a Role That Michael Gambon Was Born to Play

Article excerpt

Krapp's Last Tape

Duchess Theatre, London WC2

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Michael Gambon could have been designed to star in Krapp's Last Tape. This is not just because he is now, aged 69, the same age as Krapp. It is because he is the very emblem of the play's paradox. This short dialogue between a decrepit author, Krapp, and his younger self as recorded on tape is an essay on the fruitlessness of art. Yet Krapp is a wonderful piece of art and, in a sense, the nearer perfect the production and performance, the more Krapp's argument is undone. And here we have Gambon, who for years has looked worryingly deathly and dishevelled (his frailty is always belied by his nimbleness), finding the piece's lyricism, pathos and even lightness. His down-at-heel appearance speaks to Beckett's despair, his melodious speech to the playwright's almost involuntary faith in art.

Gambon, in this production from the Gate, Dublin, wisely plays down Krapp's clownishness. In the long (too long) 15 minutes before he speaks, under Michael Colgan's direction, he modifies the stage direction's business with a banana. Rather than slip, as instructed, on its skin, he tosses it away. Also contrary to Beckett's instructions, Gambon places it not by a waistcoat pocket but at his fly, dildo-like. His gestures are pathological, not clownish.

Krapp is addicted to the fruit, to booze and to women, but it is for words, we discover, that he abandoned his girlfriend 30 years ago. The older Krapp would like us to believe he has lost patience with words. When the pompous younger Krapp, on the tape, talks of "viduity", his later self needs a dictionary to find out what it means ("state or condition of being or remaining a widow or widower"). The 39-year-old Krapp is describing his mother, who that year "lay a-dying" and whom he has wished gone. …

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