It’s not often Beckett comes to Devon.
I have seen brilliant Becketts in our big cities but the Cygnet’s version of Krapp’s Last Tape in Exeter, starring James Elston, is definitely worth catching. It runs until June 11th.
I am a real Beckett fan and I have been fortunate to see master actors on stage performing Beckett’s superb works: Thewlis, McBurney, Margolyes, Rylance, Stewart and the sublime McKellen. I have seen Krapp’s Last Tape, starring John Hurt.
So, when a new, young actor tries to step into the shoes of giants, it appears audacious, risky and a bit mad, to say the least. The Cygnet is a little theatre and, when I went last night, the auditorium was just half full. The sound quality was poor and the synchronised sound-timing wasn’t always great. That would have put off a novice, but James Elston is made of tougher stuff.
He began the play by being seated on stage as the audience came in, deep in thought and surrounded by a spider’s web of spools and tapes and junk, signifying his personal confusion. He sustained this focus for several minutes when the lights dimmed and the performance began, taking an age to create a physical and idiosyncratic Krapp. This was not indulgent, however – it was about creating detail in the character and setting the scene.
Krapp is a ‘wearish old man’ in his late sixties, listening to a tape he made aged 39, and reminiscing about lost love and time, which have slipped away from him, leaving him indulgent, alone and morose. James Elston is covered in dust and, with grey hair and eyebrows, creaking across the stage, he looks not unlike Beckett himself. He is an old man, his tongue poking through dry lips, his voice cracked and not used to speech. Elston is utterly credible, despite only being in his early twenties.
It is a study of solipsism, showing exactly how loneliness and being distanced from your own life can render a person both self-indulgent and separate. Krapp listens like a bystander to the tape of his younger voice which tells of a love affair which he let slip through his fingers. Krapp’s story is a sad one, and Elston recreates the selfish old man without animosity; he physicalises the character’s grotesqueness without excessive humour or cruelty.
Krapp’s current existence is pointless: he drinks too much alcohol, he eats bananas and slips on the skin, he is lonely, but he is never a figure of fun, nor do we wallow in his predicament. James Elston creates Krapp as he is, a man for whom time and memory are both painful and inescapable.
Beckett’s absurdist play is intelligently interpreted by Elston: with strong physicality and striking facial expressions, Krapp struggles with his lost eloquence and wasted youth. His dilemma is that he has missed the opportunity to live his life fully, but he says of the frittered years ‘I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.’
Elston is a striking and magnetic figure on stage; Krapp, while not being quite empathic enough to be endearing, is also not a tragic figure, although he has no options remaining to him in terms of life choices. As he plays his last tape, Krapp is centre stage, suffocated by his own lost time and wasted love.
Time is the central theme of this absurdist play: Krapp reflects on his past and struggles to understand a time beyond the present. The stage set embodies his isolation and the pointlessness of his life: his small room is a circle of lights and heaps of detritus, used and unravelled tape spools, empty bottles, skinned bananas.
Krapp’s Last Tape isn’t an easy play to perform: beyond it being a one-man-show, which demands great concentration from the actor, it is a Beckett, sometimes impenetrable for some audience members, frustrating for others but, as a whole piece, it is both meaningful and moving.
James Elston manages to capture the character and the moment and he creates an impactful and memorable Krapp. He is an actor who will benefit from playing such demanding roles: if he can create a credible Krapp in his early twenties, he has the potential to take on any role in the future with the promise of certain success.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see Krapp’s Last Tape in the Cygnet, Exeter, this week. The theatre should be full. It’s a great play, and it’s performed with sensitivity, panache and understanding.