In Search Of Max Wall
There’s a moment of theatre from years ago that I have since realised was the stimulus for me seeking a life in theatre. I’d been keen on drama at school and had a part-time job backstage at the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds while I was doing my ‘A’ levels. But it was when I moved to London that I started to see the sort of theatre that I hadn’t the opportunity to see in Suffolk.
In 1986 I saw the double bill of ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ and ‘Endgame’ by Samuel Beckett at the Riverside Studios. It was the former of these that was to have an enormous impact on me and open my eyes to an intimate experience of theatre that I hadn’t realised was possible. I was lucky enough to have a seat in the middle and just one or two rows from the front to see Max Wall’s Krapp. From the first moment with the banana he was absolutely captivating, entertaining, funny and, at the same time, performing with an intelligence that was daunting. Max Wall had a face that could hold an audience without need of words or action and he used its plasticity to full effect without cheapening the text or going for easy laughs.
That performance was as close to perfection as I have ever seen, and suspect I will ever see. I wanted to see it again and again but the run had long sold out and I never did. Perhaps it’s just as well as I’ve since learnt that attempts to repeat such special moments have the potential to ruin the memory of the first. Maybe I would have learnt something of how he achieved such a special thing if I’d seen it a few times, but would that add to the value of seeing it that first time and forgetting to breathe while he was performing?
Max Wall died in 1990 and I remember my stomach lurching when I heard. Somehow I thought he would exist forever. About six months after the show I had seen him in a dark and scruffy pub in South London. He looked old and frail but he was part of the architecture and, therefore, permanent.
A postscipt on this is that twelve years later I was having dinner with some friends including an artist whose work I admire a great deal. One of those dinner party games was introduced for everyone to name a piece of art or moment that had been the most influential to them. I sat there armed to tell the story of Max Wall at the Riverside Studios but, before me, the above mentioned artist started to tell exactly the same tale. Later we worked out we had probably sat only a few seats apart, although the chances are on different nights. Each of us had the same passion for what had happened to us at that show.
So, now I make theatre, in search of another night like that one with Max Wall.