The late Nobel laureate Harold Pinter once said of his friend and mentor, Samuel Beckett, "he is the most courageous, remorseless writer going - he's not leading me up any garden path ...
he leaves no stone unturned and no maggot lonely ... His work is beautiful." It is a comment which resonates with Beckett's often performed 1958 monodrama Krapp's Last Tape.
Here we have a play in which an old man, Krapp, listens – with a mixture of bemusement, amusement, irritation, rage and regret – to his annual audio diary of 30 years before. Then, assisted by the consumption of bananas and alcohol, he proceeds to record what will, he may or may not know, be his last memoir.
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The drama plays in the spaces between tragedy and comedy. It is propelled by memories of love lost, an erotic life finished and a proximity to death. The basis of its continuous attraction to directors, actors and audiences is, like every work in Beckett's remarkable oeuvre, tantalisingly elusive.
As Dominic Hill's production opens, we see the mighty frame of Gerard Murphy's Krapp towering over a small desk. The actor seems too young, and too strong, to be Krapp. Then, an early moment of banana play (think the table-top antics of Robert Downey Jr's Chaplin) raises the fear that the subtleties of the drama might fall victim to the comedy which undoubtedly lies within.
Hill and Murphy have, however, conspired to lull us into a false sense of anxiety. As Murphy's Krapp shuffles back and forth between his spot-lit desk and the pitch darkness of the room beyond, the performance takes on an ever-greater moral weight. His shoulders become more hunched, his facial expressions more contemplative, his laughter more sardonic. By the end, as Krapp sits, in plaintive silence, one feels, with a shuddering of the soul, that the surrounding darkness will swallow this large-but-diminishing man.
Hill's pairing of Krapp with the rarely performed 1976 play Footfalls is inspired. The latter – in which May, a middle-aged woman, paces a hallway, sometimes conversing with her bedridden mother, who lies unseen in a bedroom beyond – alights on memory, regret and the great paradoxes of death (the mother feels her proximity to it, May her distance from it). Carefully choreographed (the mother counts May's nine steps on each perambulation, followed by a "wheel" as May turns to walk again), the play has a mesmerising effect.
The delicate, bleak beauty of the piece depends as much upon how it looks and sounds as upon what the characters actually say. Hill grasps this entirely. His May (played by Kathryn Howden) walks, the heels of her shoes resounding, along a shaft of light in an otherwise perfect darkness.
Equal attention has been paid to the sonority and the emotional implications of voices. Both Howden and Kay Gallie (who voices the mother) are, in their necessarily distinct ways, deeply affecting. Howden's voice sounds like crystal, the resonance of which has been blunted by sorrow and moral exhaustion. Gallie, somehow, conjures up a voice which combines authority, empathy and physical weariness.
This Footfalls is every bit as moving and compelling as its better known partner, and a powerful reminder of the riches which lie within Beckett's neglected plays.