There is something increasingly heroic about Harold Pinter: 76 years old, racked with illness, speaking first from a chair with a blanket over his knees while accepting the Nobel Prize last December, and now from an electric chair (of the non-fatal variety) as Samuel Beckett’s reminiscent old Krapp, hunched over his tape recorder.
Actually, Pinter is not all that hunched. Although he doesn’t stand until the curtain call after 45 minutes, he is stern and severe at his desk. He does not do the full banana business, though he does all the talk. The most terrifying moment is when he sweeps the unwanted tapes and spools from his desk and into a corner of his spooky office.
The setting for this Krapp’s litany of memories about his girlfriend on the river, the death of his mother and his minor success as a writer, is indeed a haunting, dead-of-night den, brilliantly designed and lit by Hildegard Bechtler and Paule Constable, where we can just make out the dark flock wallpaper, the sad remains of a small hearth and the distant glow of a room-high stack of old scripts.
The play, written for the Irish actor Patrick Magee, was first seen at the Royal Court in 1958. How appropriate and moving it is that Pinter, whose own fitful association with this theatre dates from the same year - when he was an understudy there in plays by N F Simpson and John Osborne while his own first play, The Birthday Party, was failing to please the critics in Hammersmith - should embody the fading writer, if only for these ten precious performances.
Krapp is obviously at the end of his life. Pinter, characteristically, plays neither the wispy old comic dodderer once revealed by the great Max Wall, nor the hunted, haggard Beckett lookalike of John Hurt six years ago. He plays a defiant, croaking, frowning investigator into the past and his old writings. The best years have gone, he says finally, when there was a chance of happiness. “But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now.” The fire is not out, and Pinter stares us down, menacingly, as the lights dim.
This is intensely moving. Ian Rickson’s production is impeccably arranged. But I find too little variation in Pinter’s stentorian tone, even when he’s funny, and there is hardly any contrast between his voice now and voice then, 30 years ago. But when he disappears off smartly in his mobile chair and returns backwards with the same furrowed brow, or with a glass of the malt that wounds, he’s the very picture of a great writer on his last lap, rather like one of his own literati in No Man’s Land. Bravo!
- Michael Coveney