Review: La dernière bande at the Greenwood Theatre

(La derniere bande [Krapp’s last tape] with Pierre Chabert as Krapp. Directed by Samuel Beckett. With Robert Pinget’s L’Hypothêse. Greenwood Theatre, London, 8 - 20 March 1976, in the season ‘Festival du Théâtre Franqais contemporain.’)

James Knowlson

This production of Beckett’s own translation of Krapp’s last tape, written with Pierre Leyris, was brought to London as the opening event in a season of French plays by Beckett, Pinget, Arrabal, Célìne, and Dubillard, which was organized by the French theatrical organization, Prothéa, and housed in the comfortable, well-equipped Greenwood Theatre. One wishes such a venture every success, since relatively little French theatre in the original language ever comes to Britain. Tours by French companies are arranged and sponsored from time to time, of course, by the French Institute but the plays tend, understandably, to be fairly safe bets, for example, of fate, Beaumarchais’s Le barbier de Séville, Molière’s Les fourberies de Scapin or (slightly more adventurously) Jarry’s Ubu roi. The merit of such tours is that these, sometimes fine, productions are presented very widely throughout the country. The recent season, on the other hand, was confined to London and the emphasis was clearly upon small-cast productions for financial reasons. There seems to be the additional prospect of exchange visits by British companies to France and I congratulate Prothéa upon this initiative.

Having said this, however, it would have been rather more in the spirit of this cultural exchange if the organizers had verified the nationality of their first dramatist, Samuel Beckett, instead of paying a warm tribute to him in the programme as ‘one of the greatest living British authors, who lives in France’! Better too if they had given some of the plays their correct titles: Coming, and goings and Comedy indeed! After all, Play and Come and go were first written in English.

Several features of Beckett’s French production of La dernière bande, which follows closely in many respects the 1969 Schiller Theater production, are touched upon elsewhere in this issue. It is perhaps worth summarizing here a few of the changes made to the published text. The opening is simplified, the banana ‘business’ altered and the evening hymn is cut out entirely (removing, of course, another clash of old and younger Krapp, his younger self having asked ‘Shall I sing when I am her age, if I ever am. No.’) In this production, when Krapp goes to his back-stage ‘cagibi’ to drink, the shadows cast add a strikingly successful visual image to the auditory evidence of his addiction to booze. On the other hand, it seemed to me that making Krapp hit the overhead lamp as he rose added nothing and was a positive distraction as the eye followed the swinging lamp. Beckett’s ‘microscopic drama’ requires every element to be ‘right’ as small details take on increased importance.

We have been fortunate in having seen in London a number of very accomplished actors play Krapp. Most successful of all perhaps was Patrick Magee, for whom the play was written and whose voice admirably captures the rhythms of Beckett’s language and Martin Held who probably offered the most authentic performance under the author’s own direction. By these high standards Albert Finney’s 1973 Royal Court performance must be rated a comparative failure.

Pierre Chabert finds himself then in distinguished company in taking on the part of Krapp. He has written most perceptively in Travail théâtral on working with Beckett and shown that his understanding of the play extends to the musical harmonies and rhythms of the text, its balance and its oppositions, as well as to the relationship between physical action and inaction and recurring themes. On stage, Chabert shows that he is sensitive too to the poetry of the text and his fixed moments of dream and obsessed fascination are impressive. Yet one is too conscious that beneath the rather over-vigorous figure of an old man dressed in a grey dressing-gown, black skull-cap and white, untied plimsolls (yet another change, of course) there lies not far from the surface a young actor playing a role which is extremely difficult for him. It is ultimately a lack of conviction I think, which separates this highly intelligent performance from the more moving Krapp of Magee or of Held. Perhaps in the end, only a very great actor could manage to combine successfully clownish pratfalls and real human feelings, aspiration and failure, vaudeville farce and authentic suffering and, at the same time, provide the structured, musically organized performance aimed at by Beckett as director. Like Beckett himself, I should like to be around if and when Nicol Williamson had a try.