Memories can either comfort or torment us. Samuel Beckett’s fascination with the ways we distort, betray and cling to our past experiences is shown off to great effect in this thoughtful triple bill of one-act plays, curated by veteran director Trevor Nunn.
It’s a slowly paced, occasionally solemn evening. Nunn handles the material with perhaps a touch too much reverence, stifling something of Beckett’s sparklingly black humour and humanity, but there’s no denying the show’s gripping intensity.
Nunn takes time to really focus on the minutiae, dwelling on tiny gestures – a hand touching a shoulder, a distracted glance off into the dark. In Jermyn Street Theatre’s intimate confines, every scene feels like an intrusion into some private moment, like eavesdropping on a stranger’s conversation.
In Krapp’s Last Tape, easily the best-known play on the programme, James Hayes invests the audiophile shut-in with an edge of febrile instability. He paces, squirms, sucks on a banana, hoots like an owl as he revels in the sonorous quality of the word “spool”, and sweeps crates of tapes off his desk in a flash of ferocious temper.
Originally intended for television, Eh Joe is a mesmerising and quietly appalling piece, where Niall Buggy’s desperately lonely Joe sits immobile, haunted by the bitter ghosts of his past. A projection on the rear wall shows a live closeup of his face, gradually pushing in until the camera’s gaze becomes deeply invasive. Black and white footage highlights the sheen of tears gathering in his eyes, the specks of saliva on lips contorted in grief.
Appearing via voiceover, actor and Beckett scholar Lisa Dwan provides a remarkable reading of the disembodied Voice tormenting Joe, an echoing whisper dripping with caustic malice as she lays bare his doubts, fears and darkest imaginings.
Closing the evening, the rarely performed The Old Tune is the lightest of these plays, a bouncy dialogue full of wry humour, vivid idiom and precisely-observed rhythms. Here, two old acquaintances meet after decades, sharing a meandering chat which gradually becomes tangled in thickets of nostalgia and misremembered details.
David Threlfall is wonderfully stuffy as the curmudgeonly Mr Cream, quick to correct his friend’s recollections with his own versions of events, while Buggy, pulling double shift as wistful organ-grinder Gorman, glows with warmth and gentleness.
The starkness of the play’s themes carries through in Louie Whitemore’s design, with set limited to a few minimal pieces – a bed, a bench and a dilapidated old table. These items float in the deep, velvety darkness of David Howe’s elegant lighting, a blanket of shadow punctured by fuzzy-edged lenses of warmth, as though we’re observing the characters under a microscope or through a vintage camera.