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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Duchess


  Michael Gambon/ Ph: Anthony Woods

In a pool of light, a man is slumped over a desk. There is silence. It stretches on and on, growing heavier and heavier, until its weight begins to seem unbearable. Suddenly, from the huddled form, a single arm emerges. The hand flaps briefly aloft; is it waving a wry greeting, or signaling a cry for help from its owner, drowning in despair? Whichever, it abandons its half-formed gesture, as the arm wraps itself instead around the man’s grey, tufted, bowed head, in an almost simian gesture, a pitiful attempt at self-embrace, self-soothing. There is yet more silence. It feels as if it will take a tremendous effort of will to break it.
These are just the opening minutes of Michael Colgan’s Gate Theatre Dublin production of Samuel Beckett’s bleak, heart-breaking masterpiece: not a word so far uttered, and yet already the production, and Michael Gambon’s brooding performance, have spoken volumes about the implacability of time, the passing of life’s opportunities, the inevitability of death and the impossibility of anything beyond it. 
Gambon is a weary, worn-out hulk of a man. His face is ashen and sagging. There are great bloodhound pouches beneath his eyes, and his lips droop in an expression of perpetual disappointment that sometimes hardens into a snarl. Slowly, painfully, he uses his gnarled fingers to work his way around the crenellated edges of his desk; he is feeling out its dimensions, measuring out its size and that of his existence, which he has spent recording his life instead of living it. He wanders, aimlessly, with just a flicker of curiosity, in and out of the pool of pitiless light that imprisons him in James McConnell’s design. And when this Krapp indulges in Beckett’s vaudevillian banana business – dangling the fruit from his mouth, slipping, in time-honoured slapstick fashion, on its skin – it’s with a hint of the grim rictus of a comedian delivering a joke he knows has long since ceased to amuse either his audience or himself. The tired grubbiness of the routine is underlined when he plants the banana at his crotch – an emblem both of his priapic youth and of flaccid, dispirited old age.
It’s a desperately moving, desolate scene, whose merciless lyricism is intensified as Krapp begins to replay the tapes he has recorded on his birthdays through the years. As he selects a volume, he intones the word “spool” in a singsong manner that is part-childlike; but soon he’s scoffing, with a voice that is pronounced in its Irishness and often ferocious in its bitterness, at the pretensions of his younger self, the fruity timbre, the self-important tone, “the stupid bastard I took myself for 30 years ago.” The awful sense of waste is piercing as he listens to his recollection of returning a rubber ball to a dog outside a nursing home while his mother died within its walls; as the young Krapp holds the ball in his hand, it’s as if, for a moment, he grasps the essence of possibility. The miniature rubber globe is his world, which his older self will later contemptuously dismiss as a “muck ball;” he briefly clutches it, and all that it offers – but seconds later, squanders the opportunity. “I might have kept it. But I gave it to the dog,” the voice on the tape reflects. And then, resignedly, “Oh, well.” Little wonder that the old man he will become is so frustrated and enraged with himself. He is marooned, at his desk, in his spotlight, surrounded by darkness and loneliness; and when Gambon listens, and re-listens, to his own voice chronicling a moment of tenderness during a farewell embrace in a punt, the contrast between that intense intimacy and his current isolation is emotionally devastating. Drink offers a temporary numbing, a blurring of memory; but there is, in the end, no comfort, no mercy here. Beckett leads us to the very edge of the tolerable, and has us peer into the terrifying void beyond; Colgan and Gambon ensure that the view is breathtaking.

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