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The Theatreguide.London Review

Beckett Triple Bill (Krapp's Last Tape, Eh Joe, The Old Tune)
Jermyn Street Theatre   January-February 2020

Trevor Nunn directs three experienced actors in a trio of short works by Samuel Beckett, with mixed results. Generally, the less well-known the play, the less successful is the performance.

The evening opens with Krapp's Last Tape, an acknowledged classic. A sixty-nine year old man listens to a tape-recorded diary he made thirty years earlier, part of which describes listening to an even earlier tape, and then makes a new recording of his own.

In each pairing the older man reacts with annoyance at his younger expressions of passion or ambition, while the younger voices implicitly condemn the older man's failings.

Beckett's play is so richly layered that any actor and director almost have to choose one tone to focus on, neglecting or underplaying the others. It can be bitter, sad, ironic, tragic, fatalistic and even comic.

Director Nunn and actor James Hayes have chosen to stress the eldest Krapp's rejection of life and revulsion at reminders that he was once – or more than once – more involved in a world of passions and ambitions.

All hints of humour in the text are either pushed past or ignored, and even the older man's annoyance at his younger selves is presented as dry and without energy. This is a man waiting to die, with little interest in the reminder that there were times in his life when he cared about anything.

It is neither the best Krapp's Last Tape that I've ever seen nor the worst, a legitimate reading of the play presented clearly and effectively.

Eh Joe was originally a television play consisting of a single close-up of a man's face while a woman's voice, presumably in his head, attacked him. The stage version shows the actor, Niall Buggy, sitting in a room while a TV camera projects his face on a screen, with a recording of Lisa Dwan as the woman.

The woman's voice is an accusing and torturing one. Evidently an old lover, she reminds Joe of what he lost by rejecting her, of another woman he destroyed with his cruelty and indifference, and of the fact that his own lonely old age and death are approaching.

Theatrically the effect is a study in minimalism and audience psychology, as we reach to interpret the lightest involuntary tics in the unmoving and inexpressive actor's face as responses to the woman's accusations and jibes. (I've sometimes suspected that Beckett's ideal production would be a still photograph, with all hints of emotion entirely in the minds of the observers.)

The only production I can compare this to is the 2006 version with Michael Gambon and the voice of Penelope Wilton. If memory serves, Gambon was a little more successful than Niall Buggy in remaining impassive while Lisa Dwan is more viciously tormenting and self-satisfied than Wilton was.

At any rate, it works, marred only by the decision to project the close-up of Buggy's face on a black wall so that it is not clearly visible.

The Old Tune, originally a radio play, is the most conventional and least Beckett-ish of the three, and here the least successful.

Two old men meet after a long gap and reminisce about their youths. They betray their ages by forgetting details, disagreeing on details, losing their trains of thought and lapsing into private silences, but clearly find the brief episode of contact with another human and with their own memories, however inexact, a comforting experience.

If there is anything more to the piece than the central joke of failed memories and the warm celebration of connection, director Trevor Nunn hasn't found it. And he hasn't led his actors, Niall Buggy and David Threlfall, to any sense of the play's rhythms or structure, so they too frequently seem lost while the play just meanders pointlessly.

The emptiness leaves us too much time to remember that many lesser dramatists have played with the same one-joke premise – Robert Anderson's I'm Herbert, David Mamet's Duck Variations, even Lerner and Loewe's song 'I Remember It Well' – and reached the same warm conclusion.

One doesn't want to believe that Beckett was less successful with this simple model than they, so his version must have more shape and resonance than director Nunn has found here.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Beckett Triple Bill - Jermyn Street Theatre 2020