Skip to main content
theatre

Actor Bob Nasmith in Krapp's Last Tape at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto.Graham Isador/The Globe and Mail

A decade ago, when asked to name my favourite play, I would say, as a matter of course, that it was a 1958 one-act by Samuel Beckett called Krapp's Last Tape. This seemed like a good answer – neither too obscure, nor too obvious, and there was something about the response that felt true to me.

I've come to believe it was a foolish thing to ever answer a question like that, though. By declaring Krapp's Last Tape my favourite, I had raised my own expectations for future productions too high – and put too much pressure on a mere 50 minutes in the theatre. I started to hide from the show, fearing embarrassment or disappointment.

Each man kills the thing he loves, another Irish playwright once wrote, and I thought I had.

But something pulled me out to the independent production currently playing in the tiny back space at Theatre Passe Muraille – and I was astonished to find the tragicomedy even richer and more resonant than I remembered. A miniature masterpiece – and absolutely prescient about how the past would be ever-present in the future.

Krapp's Last Tape concerns a man who has recorded an audio diary on his reel-to-reel tape recorder every year on his birthday. On his 69th birthday, Krapp (Bob Nasmith) first listens to a recording he made when he was 39; on it, his younger self talks about listening to a tape he made in his late 20s.

"Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp," the 39-year-old Krapp says – and he and the 69-year-old Krapp laugh in unison. Is the older Krapp laughing in agreement with his younger self about his even-younger self? Or is he laughing at how his younger self thought he was no longer young?

What's important to realize is that when Beckett's play premiered at the Royal Court in London 60 years ago, this was all science fiction. Personal recording technology hadn't been around that long – and, indeed, Beckett was speculating, as he wrote in his stage directions, about "a late evening in the future."

As it turns out, Krapp both admires his younger self's confidence and bitterly resents his decisions. He listens to the man he once was recount breaking up with and then making love with an unnamed woman in a boat. Then, after popping off-stage for a drink, a vice that has contributed to the lonely life he now leads, he rewinds and listens to the passage again.

"We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side."

The shade of regret that Krapp subjects himself to each year on his birthday is one that now colours our day-to-day lives. Social media has flattened time – and people, images, sounds and video from our past now pop up in front of us whether we want to relive them or not. Beckett dramatized the dystopian bittersweetness of how technology would affect memory long before "Facebook memories" existed.

I've seen Harold Pinter and Brian Dennehy perform the part of Krapp before, but there's something altogether more fitting about Nasmith taking it on. The two men I mentioned are large in body, and big names; Nasmith, by contrast, is a small fellow, somewhat shrunken now in his 70s, his striking face telling an extraordinary story (as Beckett's once did).

The actor is not a household name, unless your house happens to be on the stretch of Queen Street West between the Cameron House and Theatre Passe Muraille. A Vietnam War vet who was active in the Rochdale College scene in Toronto in the late 1960s, he recounted getting his first bank account and phone number in an interview he gave less than a decade ago.

Nasmith's performance is exquisite – the pathos not overplayed, the humour stinging but still funny. When he holds a peeled banana in his mouth, it is the epitome of the word "absurd." When he listens intently and then gets lost in memory, you see that boat moving gently, up and down, and from side to side.

Mac Fyfe, better known as an actor, is the director on the show – and he stays out of its way. (A lot of better-known Beckett I've seen lately has felt fiddled with in some unsatisfying way.)

I realize now that Krapp's Last Tape is also brilliantly constructed for older actors – it's a real acting challenge, but not a memorization one. Nasmith lives Krapp like no other I've seen before – and left me aching, and with a desire not to judge my younger selves and the things they said too harshly.

Krapp's Last Tape continues to Jan. 28 (passemuraille.ca).

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe