Robert Wilson. Picture: Lucie Jansch

THEATRE
Krapp’s Last Tape
By Samuel Beckett
2 stars
His Majesty’s Theatre
Review: David Zampatti

Krapp's Last Tape, the short play by Samuel Beckett brought to Perth by the pre-eminent American theatre artist Robert Wilson, is a work of forcible noise and long silences.

In one of those silences, the sound of someone sobbing could clearly be heard in the audience. I'm unable to say whether it was from high emotion engendered by Mr Wilson's performance, or because she was desperate to escape from the theatre.

After seeing this striking, infuriating production, either is possible but the latter seems likely given the firestorm of grumpiness that swept around the Festival's post-show haunts on Saturday night.

It's hard to know what the grumpy ones had been expecting when they bought their tickets. Beckett's script is a mere 10 pages long, much of it stage directions that Wilson has followed reasonably closely. And anyone who has even a passing familiarity with Wilson's work (in, for example, his production of The Threepenny Opera at last year's Festival) will be aware of his famous predilection for slow motion and long silences.

If someone sells you a banana that clearly looks over-ripe, has a sign over his stall that says "Get Your Rotten Bananas Here" and warns you, as you hand over your money, that the banana is indeed well past its prime, you're likely to get short shrift from Consumer Affairs when you complain about the unethical greengrocer you've just encountered.

As it turns out, there are two bananas in Krapp's Last Tape. Wilson peels and consumes them both, as Beckett instructs him to, in the very long, wordless introduction to the play where we meet the old man, Krapp, in his den, with its desk, piles of books and journals, and high windows.

Wordless, but not silent. Throughout the scene - I timed it at just under 30 minutes - a torrential downpour is occurring (not, on this occasion, as per Beckett's instructions). I've never heard rain like it in the theatre: cacophonous, driving, completely convincing, it's a singular achievement by sound designers Peter Cerone and Jesse Ashe.

The effect of rain is carried into the lighting, devised by Wilson and designed by AJ Weissbard with bars of light cascading down the stage surfaces. As Beckett specified, the lighting, the set and Wilson himself are all black and white (with the exception of Wilson's red socks). Not white, exactly, rather a faintly green off-white I imagine British Paints would call "Tuberculosis". The whole effect is radical, nightmarish, and compelling.

Wilson is in sickly white-face, a vest over his shirt, an old man in old man's clothes (Krapp is 69, we learn; the actor is 72). He looks, as someone described him to me, like The Joker as a pensioner.

When he finally speaks - his first words "Box . . . three . . . spool . . . five" give you fair warning of what's to come - it's in an old man's dentured growl, punctuated by groans, exclamations and what can only be described as yelps.

Much of the speaking, though, is recorded: Krapp as a man of 39 speaking on tape, recalling himself at 29 recalling himself at 19, or 20. It's these layers of reminiscence, of himself, his parents, and, in particular, a romance as a young man - his first love, most likely - that constitute the rest of the piece.

There is some great poetry in these musings but neither Beckett nor Wilson wants us to have the time, or the peace, to savour it. There's also a little music, principally the 19th century hymn, Now the Day is Over, sung, if I'm not mistaken, by Wilson's long-time collaborator, Tom Waits.

For all its technical brilliance, this is a desperately hard piece to connect with, let alone enjoy.

It's not bad, exactly, but in the end it serves no purpose other than for Wilson to show himself off. That's not quite the same as self-indulgence but it's a close relative.

You do have to wonder, with so much great theatre to be had (witness An Iliad, on now at this festival; for Beckett fans the wonderful Watt last year), why the usually sure-footed director Jonathan Holloway bothered, and bothered us, with this one.

The West Australian

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