Beckett is a god of the theatre. His works are an exercise in lyricism often laced with black humour and a rather morbid outlook on life and it’s movements but his writing continues to have an undisputed legacy. For those who relish his self-deprecating prose, exquisite poetry and knack for capturing the rhythms of speech, his plays – particularly the minimalist ones – are enduring favourites.
Breath promises three Samuel Beckett plays: That Time, Breath and Krapp’s Last Tape.
The first is a very short play (only eight pages) that offers an excellent window to appreciating the cadences of speech as three different invisible voices speak of ‘that time’, reminiscing about childhood, adolescence and adulthood. There are only two pauses and the patterns are well maintained with the only character being a man “10 feet above the stage level off centre [with] long flaring white hair as if seen from above outspread”. This floating head is Edward Newborn, whose performance involves sharply opening his eyes then allowing them to droop slowly shut.
Personally I closed my eyes too and let the voices wash over me as the different voices made their journeys back and forth replete with ambiguous meaning and varying common visual references that contributed to a potent aural landscape. While initially dramatic, Newborn’s protruding face between the dark curtains fails to have a lasting impact, however.
If That Time is considered one of Beckett’s shorter plays then Breath certainly trumps the lot. Averaging 40 seconds it is supposed to be the wail of humanity against a pile of detritus. Instead of piling the stage with rubbish, director Paul Gittins uses an image taken by Kennedy Warne in Panama to create the scene which showcases a mountain of rubbish including broken bottles, plastic and a child’s doll against a background of skyscrapers. The voice (which is presumably Newborn’s) then releases a cry that morphs into the yelps of a baby. It is neither moving nor chilling, inspiring nor reflective. Especially as the child’s voice is pre-recorded and comes across clearly as thus.
The final performance, of Krapp’s Last Tape, is better than its predecessors but not by much. Newborn is clearly a talented actor and has followed Beckett’s stage instructions to a tee. His costume is impeccable and anyone familiar with Beckett’s pedantic stage instructions will delight in seeing the character wear without exception all of the following: “Rusty black narrow trousers too short for him. Rust black sleeveless waistcoat, four capacious pockets. Heavy silver watch and chain. Grimy white shirt open at neck, no collar. Surprising pair of dirty white boots, size ten at least, very narrow and pointed” and “White face. Purple nose. Disordered grey hair. Unshaven. Very near-sighted (but unspectacled). Hard of hearing. Cracked voice.”
However, the rest of the production doesn’t live up to its meticulous design. Newborn offers a committed performance to the man Krapp once was. His physicality is strong and diction clear and his revelling in the word ‘spool’ does elicit the laughs it should. But the production itself within the wide space of the Vault at Q simply isn’t compelling. This is the story of a man on the eve of his 69th birthday listening to memories of himself when he was thirty years younger: the nursing home, the woman he loved and attending vespers.
Like Krapp, the performance inevitably lacks the ‘fire’ of the younger man and, perhaps a little too like the ageing one, there is a feeling that it is perhaps better off “burning to be gone”.
#review #beckett #breath #thattime #krappslasttape #theatre