If you care about acting, rush to see Max Gillies in this Beckett
Actor Barry McGovern – one of the world’s leading interpreters of Beckett – told me some years ago the key to performing him was to realise the playwright wrote not characters, but creatures.
His remark struck me forcefully watching Max Gillies in Krapp’s Last Tape, which captures with implacable presence the echo of life fading and is as concentrated and captivating a production as I’ve seen outside the Irish doing Beckett.
We’re all familiar with and fond of Gillies as a political satirist and impersonator, but he summons a higher order of comic affinity for the crisp existential clowning Beckett poured into this one-actor. It’s the kind of performance that draws you in the moment you sit down.
All the wistfulness and embarrassment and desire and regret Krapp will experience replaying his audio-diary is there with him as he sits alone, waiting.
Each wrinkle in the moon-faced actor’s face (and it’s the Moon during the Late Heavy Bombardment, pockmarked and worn by repeated impacts) is rendered eloquent by painterly lighting.
And when he launches into the almost slapstick routine that starts the ball rolling – marching around eating bananas, moseying off repeatedly for a tipple, or wrestling the tape recorder and equipment from his desk – it’s performed with an ethereal humour, an acuity for fatuity that brings out the drollness and disillusionment in this recursive meditation on memory and mortality.
Krapp’s Last Tape, of course, is also the play that most reflects the playwright’s own life and persona. It’s not quite a dry self-portrait, but something in Gillies’ performance makes it feel like one. Perhaps it’s his career impersonating famous figures at work, but without being remotely gaunt (fewer cigarettes and more home cooking than Beckett, no doubt) Gillies seems to channel the obsessions and mannerisms of the man himself.
Laurence Strangio’s direction is flawless and deeply attuned to the text, and the design, especially the lighting, can be hallucinatory in a way that reminded me of the most extraordinary Beckett I’ve seen: Lisa Dwan’s peerless intensity in Not I and Rockaby for London’s National Theatre.
Fittingly, the final word in this production is spoken by the light. As we leave Krapp to ruminate on his life, the lighting almost imperceptibly lowers, the image of his face transforming by degrees into a fleeting, faintly glowing image of a skull.
That evanescence, and the startling memento mori, are the perfect end to a production that anyone who cares about Beckett – or indeed acting – should rush to see.