Gambon Triumphs in Beckett, Faust Is Abused, Deathless Diva

Michael Gambon
Michael Gambon in "Krapp's Last Tape" by Samuel Beckett, at the Duchess Theatre in London. Gambon plays Krapp, an elderly man who likes to record his thoughts on tape once a year. Photographer: Anthony Woods. Source: Peter Thompson Associates PR via Bloomberg

If there’s an actor who can do shambolic pathos better than the great Michael Gambon, he hasn’t appeared on the theater scene yet. If there’s a play better suited to exploit this quality than Samuel Beckett’s short monologue “Krapp’s Last Tape,” now at London’s Duchess Theatre, it hasn’t surfaced on the theatrical radar either.

Krapp is an old man who likes to record his thoughts on tape once a year. Before making his latest recording, he listens to a 30-year-old spool from his archive. It includes a bittersweet, lyrical description of an erotic encounter.

Krapp’s response is both comical -- he insults his pompous younger self with amusing asperity -- and full of desperate bitterness at the futility of his life.

Gambon (who recently has found new fame as Albus Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” films) is alone on stage, seated behind a desk under a single light. Dressed in a dirty waistcoat and torn shirt, he looks touchingly pathetic. He fills long stretches of silence by tapping the table, ambling about the stage and eating bananas.

At first he seems self-absorbed, even distant. When his existential frustration later boils over into tears, the effect is all the more powerful for the earlier restraint.

Michael Colgan’s production, from the Gate Theatre, Dublin, is simple and clear. Gambon manages to mesmerize with just his desk and a tape machine as props to help him.

Despite the play’s static nature, it’s honest, sad and funny. Anyone who has ever thought Beckett a difficult author could do worse than take a look. Rating: ***.

Lusty Scientist

John Berry, artistic director of English National Opera, has made it a cornerstone of company policy to invite directors of limited or no experience to have a go at the genre. Terry Gilliam, Mike Figgis, Simon McBurney and Rufus Norris all will make debuts this season.

Compared to them, U.S. director Des McAnuff is a veritable veteran. He already has the grand total of one whole opera under his belt (Berg’s “Wozzeck” in San Diego, 2007). Now he has turned his hand to Gounod’s “Faust” (1859).

Would that he had kept his hands to himself. His version opens with Faust as an elderly scientist of the post-Hiroshima era who flips through his old A-bomb blueprints with guilt and disgust. Suddenly Mephistopheles, a Mafioso figure in white suit and spats, pops in and offers him the chance to turn the clock back.

Gloopy Porridge

One puff of stage smoke later, and we’re whisked back to World War I. Faust is now a puppyish young dandy who sets about seducing the innocent Marguerite. Her subsequent pregnancy and final religious redemption have nothing to do with the atomic-guilt conceit, and the result is a gloopy conceptual porridge.

As is the case with many inexperienced directors, an unworkable concept has been foisted onto a resistant score. McAnuff-1: Gounod-0.

Robert Brill’s set comprises a pair of steel platforms and spiral staircases at either side of the stage. It’s bare and plain, and offers few opportunities for either intimacy or transformational spectacle.

Toby Spence makes a vocally charming Faust, even if the role occasionally proves too heavy for him. Melody Moore (Marguerite) sings prettily in the middle of her voice, and then struggles with the top notes. The usually reliable Edward Gardner conducts with little of the Gallic sensuousness that Antonio Pappano brought to the score at the Royal Opera a few years ago.

Iain Paterson (Mephistopheles) was suffering from a chest infection at the performance I saw, and though he worked gallantly, he had no lower register at all. Rating: **.

Ancient Actress

It’s not all gloom at ENO. Running in tandem with “Faust” is Janacek’s “The Makropulos Case” (1926) in a production by Christopher Alden (an experienced director, thank goodness).

The opera tells the story of Emilia Marty, an actress who has strangely intimate knowledge of an ancient lawsuit. It transpires that she’s really 337 years old, and is now trying to find the formula for an elixir of youth that she had taken centuries previously.

Amanda Roocroft (Marty) is, by turns, icy, detached, flirtatious and desperate. Though her voice is smallish, she invests every phrase with emotional honesty. The excellent supporting cast includes Peter Hoare and Ashley Holland as men drawn into Marty’s web, and Andrew Shore as a dyspeptic lawyer. Richard Armstrong conducts with thrilling clarity, and works hard not to drown Roocroft’s voice.

Alden sets the production in a stylized 1920s office building, all glass and chrome. At times, characters behave naturalistically, at others, they use exaggeratedly slow gestures: It works beautifully for an opera which is as much philosophical puzzle as character study. Rating: ***.

“Krapp’s Last Tape” is at the Duchess Theatre through Nov. 20. Information: or +44-844-412-4659. “Faust” and “The Makropulos Case” are at ENO until Oct. 16 and Oct. 5, respectively. Information: or +44-871-911-0200.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless
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