If you’re an admirer of both Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, it doesn’t get much better than this – one theatrical giant paying homage to another in the tiny upstairs theatre at the Royal Court. The greatest living playwright is appearing in Krapp’s Last Tape just ten times and, even if this hadn’t been a great performance by Pinter, it would still have been a special event.
Earlier in the year, John Hurt reprised his Krapp at the Barbican and it was one of the most charismatic performances I’ve ever seen. Harold Pinter is very different but equally mesmerising and proves again that he’s a fine actor. Opportunities to see him act have been rare, particularly in recent years, making this all the more memorable.
The 69-year-old Krapp sits in a room listening to tapes of his younger self. Like other Beckett characters – from Winnie in Happy Days to Mouth in Not I – he cannot face the reality of his present situation. He can only review himself as a distant persona, whom he dismisses as “that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago”. In his turn, the 39-year-old Krapp on tape laughs at the aspirations of his even younger self.
The lights come up very slowly on the old man at his desk and the theme of light looming out of darkness pervades this production. There is more of a set (Hildegard Bechtler) than is usual with the play – a stack of shelves crammed with junk at the back, a fireplace and more shelves in the room – and it slowly emerges as our eyes get used to the gloom, just as Krapp’s memories come falteringly back into his mind.
Following his recent illness, Pinter is frail and plays the role in a motorised wheelchair, with movement kept to a minimum. The business with the bananas is cut, maybe in order to avoid the physical demands of the slapstick routines, and this does take away from the theme of renunciation – he’s still drinking and getting the whore in but has seemingly given up the bananas.
If we lose the significance of the bananas within Krapp’s physical/spiritual struggle, as well as their sexual connotations, what we get from Pinter is a hugely sympathetic portrayal. There are many fine details in his performance. When he accidentally knocks a spool box on the floor, he does it so convincingly I momentarily thought it was a mistake.
There’s something very moving about the way he caresses his copy of the novel Effi Briest before flinging it across the room. His performance is finely focused and has an emotional quality that I haven’t seen in other interpretations.
This is an impressive production of Beckett’s play but also an extraordinary meeting of two great artists that is unlikely to happen again.