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First Night: Krapp’s Last Tape

One of the advantages of growing older is the opportunity to look back at your younger self and, with the wisdom of age, pinpoint your youthful mistakes and misguided confidence. Mind you, casting an eye back on a younger you isn't always a positive experience. Such is the case in Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape, where a stooped, defeated 69-year-old listens to a tape recording of his younger self.

The play is a mere 50 minutes long, and it is a mark of Beckett's unrivalled talent that he can tell a rich story running through the full spectrum of emotions in less than half the time it would take the average playwright. Here, what is unsaid resonates just as strongly as what is said.

The action opens on Krapp (played with his usual captivating skill by Michael Gambon) on the day of his 69th birthday. Shabbily dressed, hunched at a cluttered desk under a solitary light, he rummages through drawers to find his favourite snack -- a banana. Before he utters a word, his downtrodden appearance and fumbling, unsure demeanour speak volumes about how life has treated him. He begins an annual ritual, that of making a tape recording to document all that he has experienced in the past year, while choosing at random an old tape so that he can reminisce about his younger life.

He looks back on his 39th birthday, a year in which Krapp had reviewed a tape from his mid-20s. Thus, Beckett sets out a clever technique which exposes the audience to three stages in the life of one man. We hear 39-year-old Krapp expressing his scorn at the arrogance and idealism of his 20-something-year-old self. And, as 39-year-old Krapp laughs at the folly of youth, so too does the 69-year-old, sniggering at the notions he held 30 years earlier.

This is what makes Krapp's Last Tape such a depressing play, the unspoken truth that the Krapp of the future will look back with derision and disappointment on the words recorded on his 69th birthday. Throughout, contrasts are used to stunning effect: light versus dark, noise versus silence, the cockiness of youth versus the disappointment of age.

It all makes for a brilliantly effective piece of theatre, which showcases the very best of Beckett.