Pinter and Beckett: it sounds like a firm of Dickensian lawyers or a long-forgotten music hall act. Their names are thrown together so often, so routinely, it’s as if their combination alone ‘explains’ a whole genre of post-war English theatre: gloomy, menacing, minimalist, existentialist, cerebral and – oh yes – darkly comic. Bitterly poetic, frustratedly humane might be another, more generous way of putting it.
There’s certainly no shortage of parallels and connections to be drawn between these two, from their mutual fascination with ‘to be’ and the silences from which that seemingly innocuous verb gains its meaning to their deep-seated interest in blowing the bloody doors off French-windows theatre – and, of course, their shared love of cricket. Their plays, though – even their shortest plays – are rarely performed in close proximity, let alone back-to-back, and Bristol Old Vic’s double-header is the first time that the – with hindsight – obvious pairing of Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska and Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape has seen the crepuscular light of day.
It works, too – not only because, individually, these are both unquestionably strong and effective one-act plays, but because, together, they generate similar emotional resonances about memory and perception, and get at the core of what it means to exist in four dimensions when an awareness of the fourth always seems to obliterate the other three. Pinter’s Deborah – who wakes after nearly thirty years of oblivion caused by sleeping sickness – and Beckett’s costive and banana-obsessed Krapp – who wearily, caustically, sentimentally, listens back to his thirty-years-younger self – are caught in the same trap: what they’re short of is life, but life seems to be nothing but raised hopes, abrupt disappointments and, most prominently here, unreliable memories.
As Deborah, Marion Bailey is superb. There’s nothing to question about her performance as the teenager who arrives into a forty-something’s body at the end of a lengthy parenthesis. She wriggles, mews and deploys anachronistic words with the best of them (‘flibbertigibbet’ is a personal favourite), querulously engaging Richard Bremmer’s dry-as-dust doctor and Caroline Backhouse’s sister Pauline as she re-establishes herself in their world. It’s an achingly beautiful forty minutes – marred only by some clunky blocking halfway through which means that, at the crucial point, half the audience can’t see what’s happening on the all-important hospital bed.
Thankfully, there are no such blemishes in Krapp’s Last Tape. It starts as it means to go on. Very slowly. And is all the better for that. All lugubrious jowls and cardigans, Bremmer’s Krapp is like a state-funded care home on two legs: he’s both pathetic and defiant, a wasted remnant of an earlier age. Staring across the light shed by a dangling lamp, he makes every breath count, finding the humour in this dark, bleak play and, in a way, having the satirical time of his life in commenting on the ludicrous optimism of his earlier recording. It could have gone further. It could have been many other things. But for the moment this is probably the best take on Beckett’s mini-masterpiece you’re likely to see. Bremmer is utterly absorbing.