“Something is happening.” So begins Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska – the first play of Simon Godwin’s existentialist but eminently watchable double bill at Bristol Old Vic, which also comprises Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape – and it’s a line which sets the tone not only for the evening’s works, but for the nature of this pairing as a theatrical event in itself.
The coupling is an undoubted stroke of conceptual brilliance. Pinter’s play explores the waking moments of a woman who has spent her entire adult life in a comatose no-man’s-land, whilst Beckett’s opens up a plaintive, regretful, caustic dialogue between an aging writer and the recorded voices of his younger selves. A Kind of Alaska’s Deborah steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the time she has lost, and looks to the future with a tragically unfounded resolve; the eponymous Krapp simply “burns to be gone”. In these ways and many more, the works serve to echo and illuminate one another – if evidence were needed of the two literary giants’ shared interests in the nature of memory and the fragility of the human condition, this is it.
But even undisputed gems don’t direct themselves, and what Godwin brings to the table is a crucial awareness that theoretical parallels ought not to obscure each piece’s individual tonal qualities. His treatment of Beckett and Pinter suggests the two less as brothers-in-arms than as stylistic cousins, happy to share ideas at family lunches, but far from artistically co-dependent. The end product is an evening which, though not entirely consistent, is sure to move hearts as much as it stimulates minds.
A Kind of Alaska is simply sublime. Marion Bailey, by turns coquettish and pensive, amused and outraged, selfish and pitiable, never ceases to impress as Deborah. She captures with painstaking accuracy the confusion of a woman torn between her emotional youth and physical age; when her teenaged eyes steadily take in the backs of her middle-aged hands, a mere flicker denotes the slow-burning horror of realisation. It makes the ignorant petulance of her exchanges with her doctor and sister – played with buckets of restrained feeling by Richard Bremmer and Carolyn Backhouse – all the more saddening, and the work’s conclusion all the more painful: Pinter isn’t too concerned with giving his audiences catharsis. It is true that some misjudged blocking threatens to exclude a third of the audience from the detail of a particularly key exchange, and moments of Dan Jones’s sound design confuse the evocation of reminiscence with that of nostalgia, but the concerns are minor – even if this rarely staged mini-masterpiece were seen twice as often as it currently is, you’d be unlikely to find a better take on it than this.
Unexpectedly, Krapp’s Last Tape – certainly the more famous of the evening’s offerings – suffers by comparison. Godwin gives us a much warmer interpretation than we have been used to in recent years. He offers one diametrically opposed, in fact, to the relentlessly bleak 2006 production which Pinter himself starred in – even Charles Balfour’s single light bulb is positively homely. This in itself is no bad thing, but it does throw up some problems. For much of the first twenty minutes, Bremmer’s Krapp comes across as man content: happy to eat his bananas, to drink a little, to indulge in his own past. As all of this changes, and he sweeps the boxes of spooled memories which clutter his desk onto the floor; the shock isn’t necessarily a good one. The action feels jerky, out of place and scripted without being requisite.
Things pick up, and Richard Bremmer – a hunching giant with sunken eyes – ought to be lauded for some interesting choices. He does well to imbue his Krapp with a trace of the old arrogance which his recordings reek of, whilst a feeling of rueful resignation rather than embittered resentment provides satisfying food for thought. Above all, viewed just 15 minutes after A Kind of Alaska has finished, the sensation of connections being made, pieces slotting into place and tentative links interweaving is one to be treasured. But, contrary to expectations, it is the sight not of Bremmer and his tape recorder, but of Marion Bailey’s face slowly being lost to the darkness which will, hauntingly, remain with me.
A Kind of Alaska/Krapp’s Last Tap are at the Bristol Old Vic until 12 May. http://www.bristololdvic.org.uk/