Retrospective: Krapp’s Last Tape

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“Box… three…. spool… five”

(Krapp’s Last Tape, Ian Rickson, UK, 2007, 45mins)

The rasping, almost grating voice of the great Harold Pinter severs the silent opening after four minutes of the audience watching the disconcerting struggle of the character on their screens. No music plays as a backdrop to the close-ups of Pinter’s wearisome face. No sound at all, except that of the buzz of the electric wheelchair and the clanking of the steel boxes. Technically this is not a film, but a performance at the Royal Court Theatre that was filmed in 2006 and broadcast on BBC Four a year later; but Krapp’s Last Tape is no less dramatic.

Other well-renowned actors have taken up this lead in Samuel Beckett’s famous short play, including the original, Patrick Magee, with successors such as Max Wall, John Hurt and – most recently – Michael Gambon. Despite their talent as actors, Pinter’s version has a rawness that truly touches the audience. Perhaps it is the hindsight of knowing that he is playing the role of Krapp, who realises that he has wasted his life on work and documentation as his days are drawing to a close, whilst the actor’s own death occurred two years later in 2008. This was, after all, his last acting role. Pinter was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in 2001, so he knew that he was unwell when choosing to perform this particular monologue.

Director, Ian Rickson is best known for his work on longer television dramas which have been adapted from his earlier plays; such as the Channel 4 crime drama, Fallout (2008) which drew from the distressing aftermath of Stephen Lawrence’s murder. In this short film, Rickson captures the themes of missed opportunities and time running out with the distant chimes of a clock, much like in the last scene of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Like the character of Faustus, Krapp feels his life drawing to an end and maybe thinks that he hasn’t spent his years as he should have. Samuel Beckett’s plays are often about regret and disappointment.

Beckett also liked to play with the notion of the ‘self’. One would expect that we get to know ourselves better as we age, but here we see Krapp being almost a completely different person from his younger self. We pity him when he has to get out a dictionary to look up a forgotten word from years ago. He is an old man criticising and listening to his younger self complain about an even younger version of him. When Krapp begins to record himself at this present moment, the audience realises that even though he may regret his past choices, he will do nothing to avoid anymore wrong decisions. He is really the same naive young man that he complains about.

However, it is the last words that really matter. At the very end of the film, Krapp replays the tape; box three, spool five. The viewer is left with the words, “Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back” as the lights fade on Krapp’s troubled face. Maybe he does truly regret making the decision to choose work over love. Has the fire in him died? Pinter plays the character so well with his pained expression. Perhaps he felt a closeness to this role in particular because of his own illness. With tickets to this stage play of Krapp’s Last Tape selling out within hours of going on sale, this is definitely one of the greatest performances of a consistently relevant play.

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