I first encountered Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape in a compulsory English class when I was fifteen, and it would be fair to say that, thanks to Mr Beckett, I’ve never been quite the same since.  I think the same could be said for writer/actor, Michael Laurence, whose Krapp fixation seems to have started in his twenties when he saw his friend Jason Bauer play the eponymous and legendary role, a fixation which is on course to continue at least until his 69th birthday.

Krapp, 39 opens in darkness, to a recording of Laurence and his friend/director, George Demas having a wry conversation about the nature and genesis of the piece. Laurence’s recored voice tells recorded-George that, for his 39th birthday, he wants to record the tape in Krapp’s Last Tape, so that in thirty years time, her can play the role at the ages Krapp and taped-Krapp are in the original play. Geroge asks, if there will be more to it than that, and eventually, ‘isn’t that a little heavy for a birthday party?’. Krapp, 39 (both on the stage and as a concept) develops from there.

A man alone on a stage in front of three hand-held video cameras, Laurence spends the next hour and a half going back through years of journal entries written on birthdays, recorded conversations, messages from his mother, and relics from his past.

Laurence’s ‘autobiographical documentary theatre piece’, Krapp, 39 is about youth, loss, loneliness, dreams, love, failure, time, memory, and bananas; it’s about art and life and literature and humanity; it’s about a man trying to account for himself, to recount himself.

Light but meaningful, referential but original, philosophical but personal, entertaining and thought-provoking, Krapp, 39 is, quite simply an exceptional piece of theatre.

I could probably spend thousands of words parsing through everything Laurence packed into Krapp, 39, what it might mean, and how it relates to me.  It would be wonderfully meta to do so (if not so wonderfully entertaining) because Krapp, 39 is, in part, a parsing out of the themes and tropes in Krapp’s Last Tape, and how they relate to Michael Laurence as an actor, writer, and man about town.

The levels of interaction between the audience, the actor, and the original Krapp are astounding. At one point, I found myself watching a video image of myself watching Michael Laurence recording a video himself (and, peripherally, me) playing a fictionalised version of himself, interpreting Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape through himself, as Krapp.

Toward the beginning of the piece, Laurence reads from a collection of reviews of a performance he did of Krapp’s Last Tape, written by a primary school class.  One precocious student can’t capture his feelings about the play in words, and makes an interpretive drawing which is to hang on the desk between Laurence and his audience for the duration of the performance.  This highlights one of the themes in this play which is an innovation on the original – the seminal nature of art.  Because a lot of what Laurence is talking about here is how he, throughout his life, has been informed by Beckett’s play, and conversely, how his life informs his understanding of it.  On a structural level, this is a play about human interaction with art – about how art forms and informs us, even as we form and inform it.

At the beginning of the performance, I felt a bit nervous to be one of just six people (including the usher) in the audience of the Tristan Bates’ intimate studio theatre (it was an arctic night during a London transportation meltdown) but by the end, it felt like the most extraordinary privilege. And that’s down to the extreme warmth, depth, and humour of Michael Laurence’s performance; beautifully, through the act of performance, his play about loneliness resulted in the creation of a community – at least for 90 minutes that night in the Tristan Bates Theatre – at least in my head, every time I think about the interplay between Mr Beckett, Mr Krapp, Mr Laurence and myself, probably at least until my 69th birthday.

Krapp, 39 is playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 22 December 2010.  For tickets and information, visit their website: www.tristanbatestheatre.co.uk