Enter the cold world of a lonely man

Krapp’s Last Tape

Samuel Beckett, Robert Wilson

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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.


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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.

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Robert Wilson (b. Waco, Texas, 1941) is one of the greatest and most important avant-garde stage directors of his generation. Combining text, movement, dance, lighting, music and art in his work for the theatre, he is lauded the world over for his aesthetic and emotionally charged images. As well as directing, he also works in the visual arts and in video. Many consider him to be the greatest lighting artist of our modern times. Wilson studied business administration at the University of Texas, then moved to New York in 1963 to study architecture and painting. In 1968 he founded his first experimental theatre company, the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, creating his first distinctive 'Wilson' performances, including Deafman Glance (1970). In the early 1970’s he stretched out into opera. In 1975 he and composer Philip Glass created Einstein on the Beach, a radically new approach to opera, bringing both men instant fame as serious artists. Since then, Wilson has worked with many great writers and musicians, including Heiner Müller, Tom Waits, Susan Sontag, Laurie Anderson, William Burroughs, Lou Reed and Jessye Norman. He has staged masterpieces such as Puccini's Madame Butterfly, Debussy’s Pelléas et Melisande, Brecht and Weill's The Threepenny Opera, Büchner's Woyzeck and Homer's Odyssey.

His theatrical works are noted for their austere style, sublime lighting, slow moving scenes and great accuracy in text and gesture as well as often extreme scale. The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1973) was a 12-hour performance; KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace (1972) was staged on a mountaintop in Iran and lasted seven days. The surrealist artist Louis Aragon praised Wilson’s work as: ‘What we, from whom Surrealism was born, dreamed would come after us and go beyond us’. Wilson's drawings, paintings and sculptures have been exhibited in hundreds of solo and group shows all around the world. He is a recipient of many awards, including an Obie, the Premio Europa and the third Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize for Lifetime Achievement. For his sculptures he received the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. He was made a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and knighted in the French order of 'Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres'. Robert Wilson is the founder of The Watermill Center, an interdisciplinary laboratory for the arts and humanities on Long Island, in the state of New York.

Since his first visit to the Holland Festival in 1980 (with his production Dialog Curious George, which he created in collaboration with Christopher Knowles) Wilson frequently returned to the festival. In 2005, he created 2 lips and dancers and space, with Nederlands Dans Theater III, and in 2012 the festival presented his piece The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, starring Marina Abramović, Willem Dafoe and Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons). Before that, in 1989, Wilson collaborated with the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen on his opera De Materie, which was premiered at the Holland Festival. In 1997, Wilson directed Marguerite Duras' La maladie de la mort at the festival, starring Lucinda Childs and Michel Piccoli. At that same festival, he also played his solo performance Hamlet: a monologue, the last piece he performed in until Krapp's Last Tape.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), who was born in Ireland but lived and worked in France for the greater part of his life, is regarded as one of the most famous authors of the Theatre of the Absurd. With Eugène Ionesco he's seen as the best French playwright of the 20th century. In the 1920's, Beckett studied French, Italian and English at Dublin's Trinity College. After his studies, he went to work as a teacher in Paris, where he was introduced to his compatriot the renowned writer James Joyce. Beckett became Joyce's secretary and started to write his own stories, his style strongly influenced by his master's at first. In 1929, his first short story Assumption was published. In 1930, he returned to Ireland briefly to teach at Trinity College, but he didn't like the conservative climate in Ireland, and after a spell of living in London and travelling in Europe, he finally settled in Paris in 1937. There, he published a study of Marcel Proust's works, some short stories and his first novel Murphy.

After joining the resistance during the second World War, he fled from Paris to the unoccupied south of France to remain there until the end of the war. There, whilst working as a farmhand, he continued to assist the Resistance. After the war he was awarded the French Croix de guerre for his efforts fighting the German occupation as a member of the Gloria espionage network. He wrote about his war experiences in his novel Watt (1943). After the war, he started to write plays as well, which brought him his fame. His most loved plays from this period includeWaiting for Godot (1952), Endgame (1958), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) and Happy Days (1961).

From the 1950's onwards Beckett started to develop his own signature minimalist style of writing, doing away with any embellishment and adopting a very economical use of words. Part of the reason for developing this minimalist style was that he was writing in French, which compelled him to be very accurate as it was not his mother tongue. He would translate his own work into English himself. Much of his work is about the impossibility of capturing reality in language and about the inability of man to give meaning to their existence. The dry manner in which he confronted his audience with the absurdities and trivialities of the human condition makes his work not only tragic but also humorous. Becket was always closely involved with the staging of his own work, sometimes as an advisor, often as a director. In 1969, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1989 in Paris, where he was buried at Montparnasse Cemetery.

In 2008 the Holland Festival opened with a staging of Beckett's Happy Days, about a woman who is buried in sand up to her waist, played by the Irish actress Fiona Shaw and directed by Deborah Warner. In 1982, the festival programmed a music theatre version of Happy Days, entitled Winnie, Dello Sguardo, directed by Italian Pierr'Alli. Krapp's Last Tape was performed twice at the festival – in 1960 with the Irish actor Cyril Cusack under the direction of Howard Sackler, and in 1968 a staging by Phil Flad starring the American Michael Pataki.

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creation, design, direction
Robert Wilson
collaboration set design
A.J. Weissbard
Peter Cerone, Jesse Ashco
associate director
Sue Jane Stoker
assistant director
Charles Chemin
technical director
Reinhard Bichsel
light supervisor
Aliberto Sagretti
sound engineer
Guillaume Dulac
stage manager on tour
Thaiz Bozano
chief stagehand
Violaine Crespin
make up
Claudia Bastia
tour manager
Laura Artoni
a project by
Change Performing Arts
commissioned by
Spoleto52 Festival dei 2 Mondi and Grand Theatre de Luxembourg
Fondazione CRT Milano