Niall Buggy shuffles onstage as Krapp, the miserable outsider, eating a banana and preparing for his annual self-torture – a birthday recording documenting the previous year. His costume is both pitiful and appropriate. Carpet slippers, a dirty cardigan, and trousers with an elasticated waist are the uniform of the aged retainer as he stumbles about, fetching tin after tin containing recording spools.
Buggy has the audience hooked from the start. He is eminently watchable and every action seems simultaneously naturalistic and precise. Though Beckett was fifty-two when he wrote Krapp’s Last Tape, it’s obvious that he sees Krapp as an exceptionally old man, but sixty-nine is by no means elderly to a millennial audience. At first, this is jarring to me and takes me out of the fictional world created, Buggy is a spritely seventy-two and clearly much more youthful and energetic than the character he inhabits. Despite this, he convinces me of his decrepitude in minutes, fumbling with keys under the light and struggling to open a second banana.
The direction from Dominic Hill (assisted by Dermot Daly) is clear and engaging. We consider Krapp a frail invalid and are lured into a false sense of security until his first outburst. Hill portrays Krapp as a dementia sufferer, and the frustration he feels is undeniable. A pitiful character who mourns the man he was in his prime and mocks the idealist he was in his youth, Krapp is obviously miserable in retrospect. The audience can all identify with the idea of a rosy-coloured youth we both miss and ridicule.
Despite pathos, there are moments of humour. I particularly enjoyed a section in which the protagonist replays his moments with a former belle in a rowing boat over and over again. The small venue (Bramhall Rock Void) enhances the idea that we are witness to private contemplation and can share the moments of joy with Krapp.
Separate chairs metres apart provide their own problems. My neighbour falls asleep during a quiet instant. It’s warm, dark and comfortable – understandable given the circumstances – but I’m too far away to nudge him awake, and so is his wife. (An unexpected consequence of social distancing I’m sure Leeds Playhouse were unable to account for.)
Krapp’s Last Tape is a compelling choice as part of the Connecting Voices series, staged by Leeds Playhouse in collaboration with Opera North. In a year where many people have stayed at home, a story of reflection, analysis and introspection speaks volumes. Buggy’s talented portrayal, the timeliness of the piece and the opportunity for soul-searching make this revival well worth your forty minutes.
Connecting Voices: Krapp’s Last Tape was performed between 2 and 17 October 2020 at Leeds Playhouse. For more information, see Leeds Playhouse website.