Repeat Play

Monday 1 May 2006

The best-known line in Samuel Beckett’s Play is one that is never heard spoken on stage, but its consequences are heard throughout the second half of the play, and define the drama. Out of all the plays being put on at the Barbican for the Beckett centenary, this is the one I was most eager to see: reading it, even with the most conscientious imagination, can in no way substitute for experiencing it in live performance.
Luckily, I managed to get to see it. (In an indication of my artistic seriousness of late, I missed most of the Beckett centenary events because I was in Italy doing pretty close to sweet bugger all. I had planned on going to see Krapp’s Last Tape when I got back but some fool cast John Hurt in it so it’s been booked out for months.)
In terms of drama, Play gives you everything and nothing. The plot is a received idea: a love triangle, the most hackneyed of cliches but an inexhaustible source of dramatic machinations. If in Waiting for Godot nothing happens twice, then in Play something happened, once. The three protagonists – man, wife, mistress, all long dead – pick over the details of the affair, interrogated in turn by an inquisitory light. What remains of the story when there is nothing more to it than memory?
The three, being dead – cremated, in fact – are ash confined to urns: the “action”, such as it is, consists of their voices and the light. Performing the play hinges on questions of timing and execution – musical questions – as much as of dramaturgy.
The connections between Beckett and music have always been obvious. Music appears as a character in its own right in several of his radio plays, and his stage scripts took on musical directions to varying degrees; from the mysterious Quad, a wordless choreography apparently more suited to dancers than actors, to Krapp’s Last Tape, a monologue with deft use of tape recording and playback that has been, or should be, the envy of composers who have attempted combining live performers with tape. (Morton Feldman, a composer who collaborated with Beckett on several occasions, was astonished to learn that Beckett didn’t own a tape recorder.)
Play is the text that most entices musicians: it’s closing direction “repeat play” caps off a text that resembles a musical score as much as a drama, with its dependence on vocal dexterity and precise timing between the three actors. Kenneth Gaburo conducted a performance of Play by his Mew Music Choral Ensemble (NMCE), interpreting the script as they would a piece of music.
Back when he was interesting, Philip Glass was hired to write music for a number of Beckett stage productions, including Play. What impressed him was that at every performance the emotional climax came at a different point in the play, proving that the substance of the play was not in its text, but in the relationship of the text between the actors and the audience. Play makes clear the audience’s complicty in theatre.
In this performance, the great emotive moment came early in the second half, as we realised we were hearing the same story all over again. The lighting, already wan, dimmed to near total darkness; the voices, already soft, retreated to a murmur that would have been unintelligible to anyone entering the theatre. This knowing use of sound, of how little of the voice was needed to carry through the small theatre, was the most successful part of the production. The audience silent, craned forward slightly to hear a tale they had heard before.
At first we laughed (the new received opinion: Beckett is funny) at the seemingly irrelevant details of their story, which seemed then to define the triviality of their minds. The second time around these little digressions became uncannily poignant, the enduring memories of a life irretrievably lost, clung to as dearly as their self-inflicted hurts and humiliations.
If you really want to see John Hurt perform Krapp’s Last Tape, he made a film of it in 2000, the same year he narrated The Tigger Movie.