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Krapp celebrates his 69th birthday as is his ritual every year: recording his memories of the past year, and reviewing his earlier recordings. As rain and storm rage outside, he listens to his former self with mockery, contempt, anger and remorse. After the triumph of his The Life and Death of Marina Abramović in 2012, Robert Wilson is back at the Holland Festival, as a director ánd actor this time, performing Beckett’s famous one-act play about loneliness and disillusionment. Wilson has transformed Beckett’s monologue into a determinedly unsentimental staging in black and white, playing Krapp performing a few old comic routines.
It's been a long time since Robert Wilson last took to the stage himself. His last solo performance was in his self-directed Hamlet: a monologue, which featured at the Holland Festival in 1997 and which he last performed in 2000. In Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, he plays a man in conversation with a younger version of himself.
Wilson directed, created the stage design and lights as well as taking the part of the older man in this production. All the trademarks of his theatre are featured: his eye for detail, the synchronicity of movement, light and sound, and the spontaneity of his acting which make his live performances so exciting to watch. At the same time, his performance of Krapp is vintage Beckett - the author's minimalist style, never writing a word too many, seems tailor-made for Wilson. The simplicity of the story, direction and stage design emphasise the tragedy of a man looking back on his own life – a life in which he has always looked back on his life – having to face the fact that it never amounted to anything he'd hoped it would, and that it never will. Along with the tragedy, the absurdity of the text and Wilson's caricatural acting style lend his staging an ironic, comical quality.
In his 'director's note, Wilson writes that from a young age he felt a great affinity with Beckett's work, but that for a long time in many ways it was too close to him. Only now, 35 years after his first production Deafman Glance, he's found the courage to take on the challenge. Instead of the structure he normally creates for his own plays, he's allowed himself to be led by what Beckett offers: 'I must find my freedom within Beckett’s structure.’
Wilsons face has been painted white, as happens in many of his stagings. The stage design is composed of a large, black-and-white space with rows of white lit shelving, suggesting an audio library. Everything is sharply defined in black-and-white, relieved only by Krapp's red socks and the banana he swallows in ritualised movements. His almost clownish flirt with vaudeville emphasises the farcical nature of the situation Beckett created. Wilson's portrayal of the old Krapp, the way he mocks his younger self while listening to his tape recordings, has been hailed by the critics as showing a great understanding of the essence of the play, evoking the tragedy of human failure it expresses – with the Guardian writing that the production was 'more unsettling’ than any previous Krapp.
Samuel Beckett wrote Krapp's Last Tape as a monologue for Northern Irish actor Patrick Magee, who first performed it as a curtain raiser to Beckett's play Endgame at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1958. Over the years, during his own directions of the play, Beckett refined the text, making numerous significant changes. He also translated it into French, as La Derniere Bande. Krapp's Last Tape has been performed by various great actors, including the Canadian Donald Davis (1960, Obie Award), playwright Harold Pinter (2006) and in the Netherlands by Lou Landré at the Haagse Comedie (1985). The piece has been performed twice before at the Holland Festival, in 1960 with the Irish actor Cyril Cusack under direction of Howard Sackler and in 1968 with the American Michael Pataki directed by Phil Flad.
The story is set on 'a late evening in the future'. Krapp, a not very successful writer, celebrates his 69th birthday. He hauls out a tape recorder on which he makes a new recording every year on his birthday, reviewing the past twelve months. He's sitting in his den, lit by the white light above his desk, surrounded by old tapes. Looking for a tape to review, he decides to start off with the tape he recorded when he turned 39, thirty years ago. His taped voice sounds strong and rather self-important. He talks about his bowel trouble, which is still bothering him; about the recent passing away of his mother that year; and about a passionate love affair which ended that year. Still, he's adamant the break-up was inevitable. The voice also reports having just listened back to his younger self, from when he was in his late twenties, a recording which he dismisses with derisory laughter for the idealistic, unrealistic expectations he entertained. He's changed much since then, the voice reports, and the coming years will make up for everything that went wrong before. But in turn, the 69-year old Krapp cannot but look back on his younger, 39-year old self with irritation and dismay. It seems to be his fate to always denounce his younger self. The 69-year old Krapp regards the 39-year old Krapp with the same level of contempt as the 39-year old appears to have displayed for himself in his late twenties and as his late twenties self had for the young man he saw himself for in his late teens. However, the big difference is that now, as a 69-year old, he cannot keep up the pretence that everything will change for the good. He realises that the love he lost when he was 39, was the love of his life, and that he should never have let her go. The bravado and determination which drove him in his younger years has now completely left him. He doesn't even finish this year's – his last? – recording.