Since their very first meeting as students in Dublin in 1970, actor and director Barry McGovern and Michael Colgan have enjoyed a fruitful working relationship.
It was a shared love of Beckett that brought them together. When Colgan saw McGovern in a production of Endgame as part of a student drama festival, he immediately recognised a kindred spirit: “I thought he was extraordinary. We could’ve been out chasing girls, but instead we did Beckett productions.”
He admits there is something of a competitive element to his admiration for his colleague. “I determined 50 years ago to know more about Beckett than he does. Since then I’ve produced more Beckett productions than any other living soul on the planet, but the bastard still knows more about it.”
Together they form a living encyclopedia of their fellow Irishman's canon. For their latest production, of Beckett’s seminal one-act monologue Krapp’s Last Tape, they didn’t even need a script. Colgan reveals that when McGovern recorded the taped portions of the play—which sees the ageing Krapp listening to his younger self—he did it in a single sitting.
There’s something appropriately Beckettian about this theatrical bromance. It’s easy to imagine them in the rehearsal room, endlessly correcting each other like a real world Vladimir and Estragon. Like any long-established pairing, the teasing and bickering masks a deeply-held admiration and affection.
Despite their status as self-confessed “pedants”, McGovern—whose performance of I’ll Go On, adapted from three Beckett novels, was a major hit at the 2013 EIF—insists they are far from slavish. “Like any play you want to find your own angle on it. We’re approaching it like a new work, doing it as honestly as we see it.”
He joins a distinguished line of Krapps, from originator Patrick Magee to Harold Pinter and Michael Gambon. Colgan previously directed John Hurt in the role as part of his epic 'Beckett on Film' series, which he subsequently performed on Broadway. He’s been listening to Hurt’s and other interpretations daily during rehearsals, and says he never gets bored.
“When I first loved Krapp aged 19 it was a different play. For instance the directions say 'a late evening sometime in the future’. The reality is the tape recorder first came out after the war, so for Krapp to look back over 30 years in 1958 it had to be set in the future. But for me now, it refers to the audience’s future. It makes us wonder ‘will this be me when I’m 69?'”
This notion haunts Colgan. He was once told by an ex-girlfriend, “You’re going to end up just like Krapp”. He laughs at the memory, but admits the prophecy remains a concern.
McGovern also feels close to Krapp, who is seen as being among Beckett’s most autobiographical creations. It’s striking that he is now 69 himself. “Beckett always avoided sentimentality, but there is sentiment in the piece. It’s very moving about loss and missed opportunity – what might have been. And there’s the duality of the older Krapp talking to the younger Krapp. It’s like a debate with the self. It’s really about what it is to be.”
Speaking to McGovern and Colgan is like meeting two musicians with an unparalleled knowledge of and passion for a single composer. It is fitting they both refer to the musicality of Beckett’s language. You would be hard pressed to find two more seasoned interpreters. But fundamentally, they’re just two fans bonding over a shared love.
Colgan describes their “deep, unspoken understanding” of the meaning of the plays, which gives them a shortcut in the rehearsal room. “To put it another way,” he adds, “we know what Beckett was on about.” It's perhaps this more than anything that holds the key to their enduring relationship. And for any fellow Beckett aficionados, Krapp’s Last Tape will be a must-see for the collection.