An American master interprets Beckett

Robert Wilson is to direct and perform "Krapp's Last Tape" at the Israel Festival.

Robert Wilson is to direct and perform ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ at the Israel Festival (photo credit: LUCIE JANSCH)
Robert Wilson is to direct and perform ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ at the Israel Festival
(photo credit: LUCIE JANSCH)
There are some stirring slots in this year’s Israel Festival lineup, with some noteworthy theatrical works in the offing.
Krapp’s Last Tape certainly belongs to that category, particularly as it will be performed and directed by 75-year-old American experimental theater, stage director and playwright Robert Wilson.
Samuel Beckett’s one-man play has been tackled by a slew of highly notable directors and performers over almost six decades. The French-domiciled Irish playwright originally created the work for northern Irish actor Patrick Magee and initially called the play “Magee Monologue.”
It was inspired by Beckett’s experience of listening to Magee reading extracts from the writer’s 1951 French novel Molloy and From an Abandoned Work, which was classified as “a meditation for radio,” on BBC radio in December 1957.
Krapp’s Last Tape premiered in London less than a year after those Magee transmissions and, over the years, has been presented by such giants of the boards as Max Wall, Harold Pinter, Michael Gambon and John Hurt. Wilson joined these illustrious ranks eight years ago, taking it across Western Europe, North America, Australia, Russia and China, and eventually to Beckett’s country of birth in 2012.
The American not only directs and performs the current reading of Krapp’s Last Tape, he also took charge of creating the aesthetic presentation – and a striking visual work it is, too. The production is replete with contrasting, or oxymoronic, visual and sonic layers. For example, for much of the show the stage set is mostly dimly lit, and even in total darkness, punctuated by pools of light.
There are also some protracted stretches of – albeit palpable – silence from the actor, and within the character’s study, while outside a storm rages, and there is the occasional aural subtext of electric static. For Wilson it is all about checks and balances, and flitting between dimensions and senses.
“My work is a time/space construction,” he states. “The light helps you appreciate the dark, and the dark helps you appreciate the light; the silence helps you appreciate the noise, and the noise helps you appreciate the silence.”
It is, says Wilson, a structural matter. “It is a formal decision I make as a director of a time/space construction.”
It is worthwhile noting that Wilson is a master in a number of disciplines. His polished and seasoned expertise stretches across a wide palette, taking in choreography, painting, sculpture, video art, and sound and light design.
He is best known for his collaborations with contemporary classical composer Philip Glass, with whom he worked on Einstein on the Beach, and with numerous other artists, including German writer and theater director Heiner Müller, Beat generation writers William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, rock artists Lou Reed and Tom Waits, pop diva Lady Gaga, as well as actor Willem Dafoe and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. It is an almost bewildering diverse list of stellar collaborators, and reflects Wilson’s all-embracing ethos.
Beckett’s play is, basically, an examination of loneliness and isolation – a poignant theme in this virtual, social media-ensconced era, one would have thought. The temporally shifting storyline focuses on an elderly man sitting in his study on his birthday. His only company is a reel-to-reel tape recorder on which he plans to document his thoughts. It is an annual ritual, and he takes the opportunity to hop back in time, to review what he had to say about himself, and life, on birthdays gone by.
Krapp’s chronology-leaping antics elicit a range of emotional responses. He munches on some bananas and pours himself drinks, while cackling at the silliness displayed by his former self. But the hilarity gradually segues into bitterness and a sense of deep remorse and regret, of missed chances and opportunities squandered, and the laughter duly morphs into sobs of despair. Naturally, the audience is drawn in to the emotional roller coaster, and it needs a steady and sensitive hand on the sensibility tiller.
The essentially minimalist play is open to all manner of spectator interpretation, including the possibility that Beckett is trying to convey a message about the passage of time and also, possibly, of the importance of the here-and-now.
Wilson believes that is par for the course. “For me, all works are essentially about that,” he declares.
The absence of sound in parts of the production may not just be an interval in the soundscape, but rather an integral component of the theatrical experience. Wilson has a reputation for weaving “sound lapses” into his output. So for him, is silence a void waiting to be filled? Or is it a palpable silence, with a “sound” of its own or, possibly, are we the audience invited to “complete” the “void” with our own thoughts/words? “I think it is all of those things and many more,” he muses. “As [composer] John Cage said, there is no such thing as silence. The quieter you are, sometimes the more carefully you hear.”
Wilson has, of course, a great appreciation of the use of intelligible texts.
“Words are something we hear,” he states. “They are part of our intellectual reasoning. Music is something that is emotional.” Like any seasoned artist, Wilson is keenly aware of the fact that he presents the product of his creative bent to others, who in all likelihood are going to take a different view of the staged end product.
He says he has no problem with the fact that we all bring our own personal/ cultural baggage to the words we speak and hear. “This is inherent in any work, especially in great works with directors/ actors/writers who don’t insist on an interpretation or one idea,” he concludes.
Crossing disciplinary lines also comes naturally to Wilson. “It is a way of living,” he notes. “I do not separate any of the numerous things I am doing simultaneously. It is all a part of living.” Music is a regular, prominent and inspiring, element in Wilson’s work, and he says it significantly informs his creative process. “I collaborate with musicians [and it] changes my direction. It gives me different perspectives. A true collaboration works both ways.”
Wilson’s approach to theater has been equated with that of Beckett, in terms of its stark simplicity and, indeed, the American received a right royal pat on the back when Beckett came backstage following Wilson’s performance of one of the latter’s early operas, A Letter for Queen Victoria. Wilson says the Irishman complimented him “on my fragmented non-sequential text.” Wilson was, naturally, over the moon about the kudos and adds that meeting Beckett “became a confirmation of my own work.”
While the aesthetics of Krapp’s Last Tape may suggest an emotional downer, Wilson is a great fan of Beckett’s wry, smile-inducing mind-set and says the tragicomic element in Beckett’s work resonates strongly with him. “He understood the humor in tragedy.”
At the end of the day, does Wilson feel that Krapp’s Last Tape is a play about opportunities missed or regret? Or this is ultimately a positive, optimistic work? “It is all those things, and many more,” comes his typically enigmatic answer.
The members of the audience are duly invited to complete the picture. The play will be performed, in English with Hebrew surtitles, at the Jerusalem Theater, on June 5 and 6.