Krapp’s Last Tape and Rockaby are ambitious programming choices for a student production company. Written when Samuel Beckett was fifty-two and seventy-four respectively, they are both one-actor meditations on ageing and loneliness. In Last Tape, the 69-year-old Krapp sits at his desk, listening to recordings he made as a younger man. Rockaby takes a woman’s perspective, as an old lady sits in a rocking-chair and waits to die. On their own the plays are challenge enough, but last week Perspex Productions ran both plays, back-to-back, at Oxford’s Burton Taylor Studio. On paper this decision was an inspired one — as their programme states, the two pieces ‘seem to carry a natural dialogue with one another’, and Rockaby both complements and references the earlier text. However in practice, presenting the two in such close proximity seemed to lessen the impact of each, dulling the texts’ sharper observations.
Krapp’s Last Tape is intensely physical. Krapp has a ‘laborious walk’; when he sings he breaks into coughing fits, and we hear his 39 year-old-self record his ‘bowel condition’. As in so many of Beckett’s works, the process of getting older is described through the sounds and sensations of the body. Because of the corporeality of the text, it loses much of its meaning when performed by a younger actor, which was perhaps the main problem with Perspex Productions’ rendering. Through no fault of his own, Christopher Page just wasn’t old enough to convince as the acerbic and bitter Krapp. The result was a performance that came across as a young man imagining what it might be like to be elderly, rather than an old man reflecting on his former selves. Patrick Magee, for whom the play was written in 1957, allows himself moments of genuine anger and frustration when playing this role, sweeping the tape recordings off his desk, and punctuating his burdensome movements with precise, deft gestures. By contrast, all of Page’s performance was delivered with a studied slowness — even the tape supposedly recorded as a 39-year-old. Director Beatrix Grant perhaps over-compensated for Page’s youth by slowing the entirety of the performance to a glacial pace, but this struck me as more of a caricature of old age than the genuinely compassionate and nuanced exploration that Beckett’s text could allow for.
Rockaby was the more compelling of the two performances. Natalie Lauren played W, a woman who sits in her mother’s rocking chair by the window, looking for signs of life at the windows opposite hers. Thanks to a sensitive lighting design by Sebastian Dows-Miller, Lauren’s face was thrown in and out of darkness as she rocked back and forth, as though passing through the days and nights that her recorded voice recounts. Beckett’s hypnotic words are supposed to evoke a lullaby, matching the rockers of the chair in which the woman sits, so here the deliberate slowness was more convincing than in Krapp. Nonetheless, following on from a performance that was identically paced detracted from the power of the text’s repetitive monotony.
The late John Hurt remarked of Krapp that ‘Everybody who plays it has to find a specific reason for its existence.’ It is this sense of purpose that was missing from Perspex Productions’ double-bill. A sense of futility is certainly present in both Krapp and Rockaby, but they also contain a multitude of other emotions and ideas, of which this performance only allowed fleeting glimpses. They are both concerned with ageing and loneliness, but in many ways the two texts are remarkably different. I wish we could have seen more of their contrasts, as well as their similarities.
For more performances at the Burton Taylor, please visit the Oxford Playhouse website.