The past is present. It's always with us. We are married to it, doomed by it. It dogs us, digs at us. It pervades our best intentions. At some point, despite our fondest wishes, we must come to terms with it.
When the curtain rises, we see an old man. A bearded old man. Sitting straight, alone, behind a table. From above, a single, solitary, shaded bulb illuminates his ragged, ravaged face. That is all. A startling image. So isolate. So alone. Huge dark space, over, around, nearly swallowing him. Nearsighted old man. Fumbling with his keys. Eating bananas. Grunting on occasion. He comes and goes. Does something while he's gone, strange liquid popping sounds, we don't know what, rattling of silver. Returns. Sits. Stares. Looks around. Eventually gets a tape from a locked drawer, threads it onto a reel-to-reel, plays it. It's him. His voice. From 30 years ago. Conjuring images of the lost past. Present, yes, but lost, still. He stops, rewinds, listens again. At one point, he begins to make a new tape. But eventually he returns to the old. (We think, yes, he does this always, returns to the old. To the past. Don't we all?) And on occasion, as he listens, when the woman is mentioned, on occasion, when a memory of the woman strikes him, an image of the woman, an ineluctable image, he shuts the tape off. And remembers. We can see the remembering on his face. The loss and the revelation.
And that is all there is.
I would like to say that the Gate Theatre of Dublin's entire production of Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape at UT's McCullough Theatre lived up to that first startling image, to those first few spare, powerful moments, before the tapes were played. Unfortunately, I can't. While much of the production was first-rate, most particularly David Kelly's poignant, honest, simple, straightforward, utterly believable performance of Krapp, one element almost -- almost -- destroyed it. Much of the play hinges on the titular tape. In fact, the majority of the play is voiced on the tape, so that is what we, as an audience, hang our hats on. We theatregoers appreciate the visual, but more than anything, we want to understand what is said. If we can't, we simply tune out. This is particularly so in a theatre like the McCullough, where some sit far from the stage. While I had no problem understanding Kelly when he spoke, even if I strained, often I could not understand Krapp's recorded voice. Whether it was the recording, the sound system, or the acoustics, something was not working.
Which was a shame, because there was so much to enjoy here. Beckett was a poet of the highest order. He was a man unafraid of his own truth, which also happens to be our truth -- that ultimately, we are all alone, but when we slip on a banana peel, it's funny. Great substance was there for us, if only we had been able to hear it, and by hearing, truly experience it.
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