A tale of two Becketts on London stages

Critic's Notebook

LONDON — There’s nothing worse than great expectations.

As revivals of two Samuel Beckett plays bow concurrently in London, they demand attention for different reasons. But while one illuminates, the other disappoints. If Peter Hall’s latest revisitation of “Waiting for Godot” is less than a revelation, then at least Beckett devotees have something to savor thanks to Harold Pinter.

Once in the bluest of moons, a massively anticipated piece of casting actually delivers even more than anyone could have dared imagine. Which is exactly the case with Pinter’s magisterial performance in “Krapp’s Last Tape,” Beckett’s look back in anguish, being performed at the 69-seat Royal Court Upstairs.

Risking accusations of rash overstatement, I’d fight anyone who disagrees that there has not been and will not be a more concentrated performance on a stage this year. This has nothing to do with the possible sentimentality attached to watching a great but frail 76-year-old cultural icon deliver an utterly arresting performance — and everything to do with Pinter being absolutely perfect casting.

His ability to illuminate Beckett’s writing is innate, and not just because the two cricket fans admired each other’s work and used to rattle around Paris and London together. Pinter began his career as an actor, playing everything from Oscar Wilde to Agatha Christie, which takes care of the technique. More precisely, Pinter is famous for choosing words with immense consideration. So who better to play a man who chooses words with immense consideration?

He’s supported and guided by an exquisitely measured production from Ian Rickson, whose strongest suit has always been his wedding of actors to the slightest nuances of a text. Here, however, Rickson goes one step further. In a move that must have seemed positively sacrilegious to the fiercely policed Beckett estate, he has tampered with the text.

Out goes white-face, clown-style makeup, out goes the whole introductory business with Krapp messing about with a banana. As a result, the leaner, tighter text of memory and regret is more focused from the moment Paule Constable’s light slowly picks the actor out of the velvet-darkness of Hildegard Bechtler’s black set.

Glowing like a late Rembrandt and glowering at the tape-recorder on his desk unspooling his memories of 30 years ago, Pinter’s wheelchair-bound Krapp is driven by a barely suppressed rage. But there’s humor, too. When he accidentally knocks one of the tapes off the desk, he sends everything else off with one furious sweep. Bechtler has put the tapes in tins, not boxes, so the crash is so bizarrely enormous that you laugh, only to have the sound die in your throat as Pinter ratchets up his fiercely tense concentration still further.

The audacity and vision of the production — which is to be filmed for BBC TV — puts Peter Hall’s latest staging of Beckett’s breakthrough classic “Waiting for Godot” at the New Ambassadors in the shade.

As you would expect from the man who has directed the play three times, including the first English-language production in 1955, every line, every moment, every beat has clearly been mined and measured. It sounds ungrateful, but the immensely detailed result lacks cumulative power.

There’s a baleful beauty to James Laurenson’s resonant Vladimir balancing out Alan Dobie’s irascible Estragon, but the production feels so deliberate that it becomes far less moving than Hall’s 1997 revival. It would be naive to expect him to rethink the play completely, but when a revival doesn’t give off the scent of directorial rediscovery, it does make you wonder why it’s there.

As Rickson’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” proves, honoring greatness is about more than paying dutiful respect.

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