Krapp's Last Tape [+ movements]

Wed 17th – Fri 19th February 2016


Radu Francis Thomas

at 13:25 on 18th Feb 2016



Krapp’s Last Tape [+ movements] was brilliant - viciously affecting in delivery and refreshingly heterodox in production. Sidestepping the familiarity of established performance spaces, Cambridge Experimental put together something truly excellent in the 12th century Round Church.

The evening began outside the church, pressed up under the archway of the entrance to avoid the rain. Cigarettes (non-mandatory) and hushed anticipation (effectively mandatory) ensue from an impressively sizeable soon-to-be audience. ‘Silence in the Church’ is written on a small piece of paper, sellotaped to the door. By the time the production has finished and you leave the church the note makes a lot of sense but initially it is flatly defied.

Walking into the space the viewer is made to feel appropriately uneasy - Joscelin Dent-Pooley’s inventive score for low wind ensemble, conducted by the composer himself, is at points luminant with rich harmonies but begins with an insect-like clutter of aleatoric key-tapping. The audience sit down to watch one of the two effective ‘stages’. The seating surrounds a circular pit filled with moist sand upon which four figures are lying in the recovery position, a four-pointed, quivering ( interested viewers should wear appropriately warm clothing) star. As the music begins to take its shape, the first ‘movement’ begins. Essentially a piece of physical theatre, the first set of ‘movements’ felt like a hivemind, moving interdependently in and out of activity, parasitic in its effect. This was well choreographed (it rejects the Cantabrian tendency towards twee symmetry) and, when combined with the sensory effect(s) of the performance-space and the music, pleasingly immersive.

The first ‘movement’ created a perfect atmosphere from which Krapp’s Last Tape, the central and most crucial ‘mvt’ of the Cambridge Experimental Concerto was to rise. This took place on the second stage, the Union’s halogen quietly bleeding through stained glass onto an austere set - a tape player with mini-amp, scattered tapes and a single bitter light over a desk at which Krapp sat for most of the performance. Here, the piece moved from the good to the extraordinary. Tim Atkin, perfectly cast as Krapp, shines in an otherwise stellar production - he is fabled by many to be Cambridge’s greatest actor. His Krapp served only to confirm this. or at least to make a very strong case for it - Tim’s ability to juxtapose moments of wistful sadness with the cunning humour that is so often forgotten in productions of Beckett was talent in motion.

The middle movement really was stunningly good - directors (and movement performers) Kalvin Dinh and Peter Price opted for a naturalism that made the piece eminently watchable even for those who were relatively unacquainted with Beckett. Laughter and gasping from the audience punctuated moments such as, respectively, Krapp’s whimsical repetition (involving tapes, bananas, offstage leffe beer etc.) and his coughing up blood (that was to linger) onto the church tiles. The play seemed as though it had found its natural home in the sacred venue - allusions to Christ, God and the Church were teased out by creative direction and the Beckettian silence took on a holy solemnity that made Krapp’s sad plight sadder still. .

The movement ended on what is one of the most beautiful scenes in theatre, a burning sadness that was, I regret, not given enough time to resonate before the third movement began. I suggested to the directors a clearer shift and longer transition between Krapp and the second set of movements - they agreed, and this won’t be a problem in other performances.

The second set of ‘movements’ or third ‘movement’ is perhaps the only problem with the production as a whole - although not through any intrinsic problem of quality or inventiveness.The physicality was blisteringly powerful - Alex Cussons (whose arms gave the impression of oscillating between the located and the dislocated) and the writhing Kalvin were particularly arresting to watch. Joscelin’s music returned in full force to accompany the spasmodic frenzy of the performers, now urgent and quicker than before. Emily Mahon and Alex were captivating in panicked fragility, seizuring to hyperventilating to whimpering, concurrently luring and terrifying the audience - the piece becoming a kinetic disease for which they were contagions.

Whilst I was impressed and moved by the third movement, I felt that the final scene of Krapp would perhaps have been a better ending - the rigor mortis of Krapp, after all the seizuring (this isn’t an exaggeration) of the second set of ‘movements’. I would have preferred the second movements to have come sequentially after the first set and prior to a Beckettian finale, ensuring the whimpering and miserable climax of the dramatist’s work. Nevertheless I think the inclusion of the bookending movements, devised by the cast and directors was well deserved if purely because of their intense effect on those watching, viscerally as well as just intellectually.

The audience is left with the distinct trace of anxiety - a fitting response - by the piece as a whole, the space haunting, the music throbbing and the performance having been excellent. Tim Atkin delivered what I consider to be the single best performance that I have seen in Cambridge and adds true greatness to what was already a triumph of a production. Krapp himself inadvertently reviews the evening ‘Happiest moment of the past half million’, and I hope that the directors and everyone else involved in the production can count this great success as amongst their happiest moments at Cambridge.


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