It's a clowning achievement for the legendary Max Gillies
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It's a clowning achievement for the legendary Max Gillies

Like a Russian doll, Max Gillies is looking back to a younger version of himself who played a character also looking back at a younger self.

Baffled? That’s often the state of a Samuel Beckett clown and in Krapp’s Last Tape, Gillies will again bow before our tender laughter 50 years after he first played the title role.

Fifty years ago, how could the young Gillies have known he’d become the stage and television legend so familiar to generations of Australian audiences? As he opens yet another theatre season in his long career, it’s an existential inquiry worthy of Beckett himself.

“I first did Beckett in the mid-'60s when I was in my twenties, I did three and they were very satisfying to do. It was the early years of Monash University. We did Godot and then Endgame and it was juicy material. I responded to the language and also to the non-naturalism. Then I did a few plays with Elijah Moshinsky, the opera director, and one was Krapp’s Last Tape.”

Max Gillies revisits Samuel Beckett's work 50 years after he first performed it.

Max Gillies revisits Samuel Beckett's work 50 years after he first performed it.Credit:Jason South

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Apart from Gillies’ own history with the play, 2018 marks the 60th anniversary of Krapp’s first staging. Gillies is a powerful voice for Beckett’s richly poetic works given that he believes naturalism has become the prevailing mode in film, television and theatre.

Offstage, Gillies is a considered, thoughtful figure, far removed from the wily and arrogant political portraits he’s perfected from Menzies onwards.

He is enchanted with Beckett’s wordplay, the poetic language fuelling a lifelong passion for the plays. Gillies’ own eloquence on the subject of Beckett is perhaps not surprising. As a performer he’s hugely respectful of writers, and is renowned for giving those behind his shows their due as inspired wordsmiths. That said, it’s the physical humour, the animated face of Gillies, make-up and prosthetics that really fleshed out favourite comic turns such as his Bob Hawke.

Perhaps that’s another paradox for Beckett devotees to ponder. While his plays are notoriously wordy, they’re also studded with wordless sight gags.

Krapp’s Last Tape opens with a dishevelled creature unpeeling a banana. Armed with his comic bit of fruit, Krapp plays a tape - a recording of his thoughts as a younger man.

Krapp makes a recording on his birthday every year and, on the eve of turning 70, he chooses the tape from the year he was 39. The poignant symbolism in recording one’s past - then re-living it by listening - surely resonates with everyone. All of life is laid bare - death, love, sex, family, writing - all added to life’s ledger and ultimately, says Gillies, form a study in futility.

“When you read and perform it, the pain is palpable but you’re not laughing at other people’s pain. He is recognising his own pain, like classic, unsentimental clowning. When Beckett opens the play with the banana peel, he’s signalling the attitude he wants to bring to the character. Any suffering this character is going to do should be read from the distance you have when you see someone else falling on a banana skin.

Gillies admires Samuel Beckett's brilliant word play.

Gillies admires Samuel Beckett's brilliant word play.Credit:Jason South

“There’s a recognition that would be painful if that happened to you, but it’s funny to watch. It’s hard to make sense of all of this, except that I always responded to the great cinema clowns. For me Chaplin was the great performing artist of the 20th century.”

The stoicism amid the slapstick of silent movie figures clearly influenced Beckett who went on to make a short film with Buster Keaton. Beckett’s plays had cracked open the 1950s, challenging conventional theatre and earning him a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.

Gillies remains astonished that the wordplay in Krapp’s Last Tape sustains us, given “its pretty bleak prognosis”.

“Beckett was a middle-aged man when he wrote it, so he was imagining, he was thinking forward and the play dramatises failure … so to do that he has to imagine the end point, the last tape when the old man recognises that his life’s ambition was futile in the end. It’s pretty bracing for a younger man to think ahead about that.”

Yet Gillies believes people often over-emphasise the tragic in Beckett. He instead relishes the Irish writer’s vaudevillian and comic source material. “We all know where a discarded banana skin might lead to when life seems a bit too bleak.”

The endless fun he’s had with politicians springs from a similar sense of the tragicomic, he suggests.

“Most of the politicians that interested me had an aspect of loneliness. It was always a mystery to me why somebody felt the need to live their most intimate life in the public glare. Even the most altruistic politicians as well as the most narcissistic … it always seemed a poignant impulse to me.”

Krapp’s Last Tape is at fortyfivedownstairs theatre from 31 October to 11 November.