Krapp's Last Tape - Robert Wilson at the Barbican

Krapp’s Last Tape | Robert Wilson

June, 2015 | Barbican, London (International Beckett Season)

Avant-garde visionary Robert Wilson is a legend in contemporary theatre with grand-scale shows such as Deafman Glance (which brought about Louis Aragon’s change of heart that theatre could indeed be a medium of surrealist art- having officially rejected Antonin Artaud and other theatrical efforts for many years,) Einstein on the Beach (‘Trial-Prison’ Act III Scene 1 track is not unlike Lucky’s monologue in Waiting for Godot,) The Black Rider, Death Destruction and Detroit– the list goes on. Samuel Beckett once saw him perform and found common ground in a post-show conversation, giving Wilson further consolidation in his particular theatrical outlook. Theatrically, Beckett and Wilson draw many similarities, visually to say the least, and it’s only natural that one would note with quiet satisfaction that each of their own ideas compliments those of the other. Beckett acknowledged Wilson as an actor that truly understands how his work should be played, a useful endorsement for any performer. This makes the show highly anticipated – in fact I bought my ticket 8 months in advance and Krapp’s Last Tape is a rich choice for a theatre creator like Wilson (It helps that Wilson has the clout to get himself scheduled into most performance spaces across the world… example: his last trip to London’s Barbican was part of the Duchamp Season in John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, his presence described simply as “passing through town” by a techie working on it.*)

Krapp’s Last Tape is set in Beckett’s common plain dark environment with certain zones of light, minimal furniture and gnostic elements in the design, black + white, visual and audio as we learn throughout the piece. Beckett exemplifies gnostic principles in this piece, laden with Cartesian dualities as Krapp’s character is placed in multiple points of time, using the tapes as an ingenious device to layer character, representing multiple versions of Krapp at different ages, reviewing the younger versions with a sneer, seeing the fool he was rather than the fool he is. A younger Krapp having rejected love, the play is about the live Krapp’s unfulfilled appetites and the struggle to shift his attention from sex (body) and intellect (mind), a plainly biological desire, integration of the two is abandoned (thus the contrasting black and white that occurs throughout.) Using the tapes and the bananas in the opening mime show to seek gratification that is never fully realised, the piece becomes a study of failure. Finally, the ironic predicament is that there is no correct decision.

Wilson’s efforts were unexpected and quite odd, and while some elements worked, the bulk of the show left a strange taste in the mouth about both the play and its performer. The opening mise-en-scène reveals a beautiful set of black and white, an archive in a basement in some future place. Immediately one is reminded of the set of Endgame, a kind of bunker with two high windows on either side, situated on the boundaries of life and death in a similar desolate future. It placed the piece in the familiar Beckett ‘world’ and gave it some identity by association.

The mime show, which ran for an aching twenty-five minutes over torrential downpour and thunder, was a little bit too loud for me, but the opening images were striking, an area Wilson excels at. The mime was loose and clownish, appearing as an afterthought in movement, putting the visuals at odds with each other which was disruptive. He looked like the ghost of a traditional French mime without any of the clarity and no specific quality**. It was neither stylised or natural. The voice was harsh with a whine, amplified unnaturally with a mic which had the effect of dislocating the sound from the words. Another jarring element was the decision to have the sound tracks played from the technical desk and not from the performer so that the mime show was ongoing, but it further disjointed the piece because the cues were never perfect. Because the space was so big, the volume was artificially loud and there was no intimacy with the performer and the audience- the Pit Theatre being used as an installation of the Radio Play All That Fall would have been a more obvious choice.

Ultimately, it felt like Wilson had mistaken Krapp’s character as inhuman, letting the complexities in the piece do the work instead of the dealing with the actual human struggle himself. In hyper-visual theatre one can get away with more shallow representative characters, but Krapp’s Last Tape is certainly not one of those pieces. I first saw it played with European natural-realism in Slovak in a tiny studio theatre in the outskirts of Bratislava; beyond the language barrier it was much more engaging. To use Sydney Theatre Company as an example, they treated the characters as the embodiment of various emotions and perspectives, whereas Wilson’s Krapp was a shell to relay some words and actions to the audience. It did manage to create the sense of self-consciousness like many Beckett pieces, but not in the way that Waiting for Godot does with delicious anxiety and endurance. However I hope Wilson continues his seminal work as a director.

*Quote from Lighting Technician, Barbican Theatre, Primary source, 2013.
**I’m not suggesting that a professional mime performer would do a better job, just that the contrived efforts fall short when badly executed.

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