Robert Wilson’s Krapp’s Last Tape is a form of theatrical water torture. The deafening sound cues of thunder claps and driving rain drove probably a half-dozen sane people out of the theatre within 15 minutes of the show’s opening. Those insane enough to remain in our seats through the onslaught of the first twenty minutes of incredibly loud nothingness were finished off by a steady stream of meaningless reminiscences delivered by Krapp and his taped voice of thirty years prior.
Krapp’s Last Tape is probably something of a holy grail for ageing actors, one that allows them to make a fine display of their talents. It has the potential to be an exercise in both self-pity and self-aggrandisement, ultimately achieving little worthwhile to anyone else but the people directly involved in the project. It’s a solipsistic piece to begin with and, when interpreted in such a cartoonish fashion as Wilson does here, it begins to make a mockery of the delicate pact between theatre-makers and audience that theatre be a mutually beneficial experience for both parties. This perturbing version of Krapp’s Last Tape is virtually untenable; had I not been reviewing it, I would have left before the second banana was ever peeled.
So it’s visually stunning; Wilson’s design is undeniably striking, precise and ghostly. Everything, except his socks, the bananas and the stormy skies seen through the small high windows, is rendered in black and white. Wilson uses geometry and repeating patterns in his visual universe and there’s a rigidity in execution that also extends to the way he manifests his physical character. He creates a caricature using silly walks, silly voices, and silly faces; everything is presentational and stiff, nothing feels organic. The bananas have probably even been genetically modified.
While this hyper-stylised uber-kookiness was fun in something like The Threepenny Opera, which we saw at last year’s festival, with its smorgasbord of cartoon characters and breathtaking sets, it does not serve the material here. The style actually drives a wedge between the audience and the thing that could possibly draw us into this rambling character piece – an actual character, filled with regret, sorrow, weariness, or any number of things that Beckett’s text alludes to. Wilson’s Krapp is hollow and two-dimensional; there is nothing behind the white-face facade, nothing to empathise with.
To watch Krapp listen to himself on tape for half an hour is a ridiculously bad idea on Beckett’s part, and I don’t understand why anyone would think that this piece is a challenge to be met. Surely there are more entertaining grocery lists or textbooks on statistical analysis to be read to an audience if an actor or director really wants a challenge. Krapp’s Last Tape is a page out of a diary that should have stayed on Beckett’s nightstand rather than become a hallowed piece of theatre to be trotted out when great actors reach a great age.
I don’t have any clue what Wilson hoped to achieve with this piece. If his chief aim is to perplex, annoy and insult his audience, he just might have been wildly successful, and for that I congratulate him. There came a moment when I fancied taking off my shoe and hurling it towards the stage, but I didn’t indulge because I knew deep down that I would miss my mark and injure some innocent theatre patron instead. I wonder if Robert Wilson ever had such a thought for us.