There is always a special kind of silence in the auditorium as a curtain rises on a Samuel Beckett play. The smoke clears, the lights brighten with an authoritarian prescriptiveness and a meandering figure wanders onto the stage; he will be, for the next uncomfortable few minutes, a distillation of all that we are as sentient beings, waiting to be explored. All that can be heard in those first few minutes are the scratches of a critic's pen and the tightening of smiles on the faces of audience members as they recognise every nuance, every habit and every aspect of themselves in that alien and unreal being; life, ageing and death in a surrealist display that explodes humanity with the finest gunpowder.
Perhaps it is apt, then, that artistic director Dominic Hill has chosen to showcase Krapp's Last Tape and Footfalls alongside each other, two plays which are haunted by the past: one, in which a man looks over the unfulfilled aspirations and disappointments of his life; the other, in which a woman laments the identity which she sacrificed in her mother's convalescence.
At the risk of sounding like a laxative advert, Gerard Murphy is a softer Krapp than most. He doesn't play the role with the baaing gruffness and blind bitterness so often associated with the character, choosing instead to roll his eyes at the arrogance of his youth and mock with the cynicism of experience. His minute mannerisms and subtleties of performance, even amongst Beckett's grotesque slapstick, are heartfelt and identifiable, throwing his arms around the ancient revolving spools of his youth and caressing them, wet-eyed, like a long forgotten lover.
Footfalls is an altogether different beast. More conceptual in its approach, it is a piece in which Beckett plays, often unsuccessfully and pretentiously, with memory, fractured identity and ventriloquism. A ouija board performance of disembodied voices and accent, Kathryn Howden and Kay Gallie meet the roles of repressed May and her sick mother with a spectral eeriness. Howden's vocal intonation, fraught with repetitious insanity, is exquisite, softly falling into the auditorium like voices echoing around an empty family home. Gallie, too, carries the weight of human suffering in her weak and fragile performance as the Voice, finding the chilling vulnerability and dependence of convalescence.
However well acted and produced, Footfalls feels like a parody of expressionist and surrealist theatre. Whilst the two pieces sit well together, it is Krapp's Last Tape that will leave audiences reaching into their memories and finding a spool to record the lessons of this heartfelt and mind-altering play.