Thursday, 12 April 2012

Pinter/Beckett double bill: Bristol Old Vic

Richard Bremmer as Krapp - photo by Mark Douet

Ooh, this is a biggie – the Harold Pinter/Samuel Beckett double header is the jewel in the crown of the Bristol Old Vic’s spring schedule, and having been to a performance last night, I strongly suggest you get yourself down to the theatre on King Street and make sure you find out just why everybody is talking about it.

Directed by Simon Godwin, this double bill by two of our most distinguished playwrights has certainly attracted attention, and all for the right reasons. Performed in Bristol Old Vic’s Studio (while the finishing touches are put to the extensive renovations of the historic main theatre), the malleable space easily adapts to fit both productions, thanks to set design by Mike Britton.

The first play is Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska, which was written in 1982, and apparently inspired by Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, which was about the real life case of Rose R who suffered from Encephalitis Lethargica: a condition that, according to the BBC, “swept the world in the 1920s”, attacking the brain and “leaving victims like living statues, speechless and motionless”.

This is the same condition our protagonist Deborah (Marion Bailey) has just woken up from after 29 years neither asleep nor awake. What ensues is 45-year-old Deborah’s struggle to understand her new reality, her new body and her new situation, and to reconcile that with the 16-year-old her she still thinks she is. Deborah is supported by her doctor (Richard Bremmer) and sister (Carolyn Blackhouse). What shows through Pinter’s script is Deborah’s inability to accept that her younger sister’s experiences of life are so different to her own, that her younger sister is now the ‘adult’, and the confusing tricks that memory plays on you. The audience is left questioning our own sense of reality, and even whether the play we just think we saw is the same play as experienced by the person sitting next to each other – after all, one person’s memory of an event is not necessarily the same as someone else’s.

Beckett’s 1958 play Krapp's Last Tape is a single hander with Richard Bremmer returning in the title role. On his birthday, 69-year-old Krapp listens to a recording of his younger self. But after a life of failure, withdrawal and physical decline, the youthful idealism that confronts him makes the passing of time even more acute.

With wonderful timing, and a precise minimalism of speech, Bremmer brings the stillest of plays to life. It is surely 10 minutes before he even speaks, with the opening being a slow and considered replication of the nonsense things people do when alone to pass the time – in this case, indulging in a ritual of finding a banana in a locked drawer and attempting to throw the skin into a wastepaper basket with your back turned. It sounds silly, but Bremmer’s performance really makes this work, and it could easily be a sketch written by one of the cleverest comedians.

The message in Krapp’s Last Tape seems far stronger than in A Kind of Alaska, with the sense of time, vocabulary and authorship coming through much more clearly in Beckett’s script. But then what else would you expect from the foremost Modernist playwright? Putting the two plays side by side, Krapp comes out as a far superior production – thanks to Bremmer’s studied performance of Beckett’s intelligent writing.


The Pinter/Beckett plays are performed daily at Bristol Old Vic until 12 May. Click here to visit the Bristol Old Vic’s website for more information. 

Bristol Old Vic has kindly donated a pair of tickets to A Kind Of Alaska/ Krapp's Last Tape as prizes for the What The Frock! fundraising raffle, which is next Tuesday (17 April), 7.30pm, upstairs at The Big Chill, Bristol. Please click here to find out more about What The Frock! and the quiz night and raffle. Absolutely everyone is invited, so start putting your teams together, and I look forward to seeing you on April 17.

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