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Krapp’s Last Tape at the Gate

Michael Gambon is great. He really is. I’d pay to watch Michael Gambon sit on stage for an hour. Hell, I’d pay to see Michael Gambon eat a banana, he’s that good. And, thanks to the Gate Theatre and Samuel Beckett, now I can.

A name like "Krapp" just invites punning...

Beckett isn’t exactly my cup of tea. I like for stuff to happen when I’m watching a play. I accept that he’s a great writer and one I should be proud of as a national treasure (and I am), but he’s also a very acquired taste. It’s odd using the same word to describe a Samuel Beckett play as I did to describe Iron Man 2, but here Beckett is self-indulgent. I mean, you can probably use a more fancy term for devoting five minutes of stage time to an actor eating two bananas, but “indulgent” seems fair to me. And yes, I just compared the immortal works of an Irish Nobel Laureate to a summer blockbuster that likes to make things go boom. I realise there’s a special level of hell reserved for people like me.

Don’t get me wrong, I quite enjoyed the play. It’s funny and more than a little insightful. There’s something that’s either tragically comical or comically tragic about an old man fast-forwarding through his memoirs looking for a recounting of a sordid encounter, so bitter that he’s constantly mocking the man he used to be (hell, even the tape he mocks opens with a mocking recollection of an earlier tape). The staging device follows an old man who celebrates his birthday by making a recording documenting the previous years. We essentially get to watch him now, in his winter years (we’re not even sure he had a summer, let alone an autumn), as he prepares his own tape, listening back on earlier years.

And there’s some good stuff here. Recalling “the vision” he had in his thirty-ninth year, the one that he aspired would lead him to critical and commercial success, the elder Krapp can’t seem to help but attempt to skip the section – but it just goes on and on. Hell, his younger self was so ridiculously pretentious that – listening to the tapes now – he has to visit a dictionary to confirm the meaning of the word “viduity”. So there’s a fair bit of material here to draw a smile from the audience and perhaps even some interesting home truths about failed writers and those of us who seek to live through recording (an irony not lost on a guy running a movie blog).

As for framing the device around an earlier tape prepared by Krapp, it’s an interesting device and a minimalist one. The first ten minutes of the play are eaten up with Krapp getting ready to browse his recordings – shuffling around the stage and rooting through drawers. I’m sure there’s some sort of theatrical term for it – I’ll venture a guess and pitch “naturalist”. In fairness, it’s grand to watch, and Gambon manages to keep it from veering into self-indulgent parody, but the simply fact is – for most of the play’s runtime – not much actually happens.

Part of me feels a little ripped off though. As satisfying as it is from a cultural point of view, and how richly artistic it is to sit in one of the most successful theatres in Ireland watching one of our most fantastic exports struggle with an extension cable, it’s still hard to get over the fact that we aren’t paying “experimental” prices for the experience. We’re paying full whack for every seat in a packed house – and, given the Gate’s prestige, that’s a lot of whack being paid. For a one act show which runs under an hour, only really contains a handful of dialogue spoken on stage and features a large part of its performance pre-recorded (and not freshly recorded each day, I dare presume), it feels a little cheeky to demand so much money from patrons. I make a point of rarely feeling robbed when I pay my money for an artistic experience, but this comes close.

On the other hand, there’s Michael Gambon. He really is amazing. He’s also, single-handedly, the reason that I don’t feel fully robbed, only partially robbed. The story goes that Beckett wrote the play after hearing Patrick Magee on the radio, and deciding his sombre tones needed celebration. Gambon’s deep voice would seem a perfect fit. Beckett intentionally loaded the dialogue with pretentious waffle, but I wouldn’t mind listening to Gambon all day. I wonder if it’s “cheating” to devote a large portion of a live stage show to a pre-recorded monologue? Doesn’t that rob the theatre of some of its live energy? I don’t know. And, thanks to Michael Gambon, I don’t really care. He is nothing short of fantastic, and – since it’s a one-man show – that goes a long way towards the appeal of the piece.

So, it was an entertaining night, but it’s hard for it not to feel just a little bit over charged. It’s somewhat hard to measure the production’s value for money when it seems to be constructed as an arthouse piece, playing in one of our biggest theatres. In a way, the play would perhaps have been better suited to the Peacock, with a lower door charge. It does what it says on the tin though, it’s fifty minutes of Michael Gambon, with some nice Beckett comedy thrown in – when he isn’t too busy having his leading man eating bananas. Don’t get me wrong – I quite enjoyed the play, but I ended it feeling more than a little bit like the elder Krapp: surely there must be something more?

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