Max Wall 1


“There is a definite parallel to my own life, yes. Krapp is a man who has had a lot of ups and downs, who is alone, who has always felt alone. There is a certain empathy. I know how he feels.”

It’s often been said that the part of Krapp in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape is tailor-made for Max Wall. He has, rightly, won acclaim for his performances in the role and is now widely acknowledged as the male counterpart to the astounding Billie Whitelaw, as perhaps the best male proponent of Beckett’s style and characters.

Krapp exists alone in a bleak, bare room with just a bright light and an old wooden table and chair, drinking, eating bananas and brooding over reel-to-reel tapes of his past. Grouchy, shambling.

Beckett’s typically exact directions have Krapp as “a wearish old man”, in waistcoat and white boots and shabby trousers that are too short for him, with a white face, purple nose, disordered grey hair and cracked voice.

Wall’s tremendous mime skills carry the first twenty minutes, where he makes the character comic and wholly captivating, armed only with a banana and his expressive features, learnt no doubt from his hero the Swiss-French artist, Grock.

He becomes, as Beckett intended, a dusty clown, which after sixty years in show business as an actor, dancer, comedian, musician and acrobat, is really what Max Wall is – a clown, and maybe the last of them.

“Very much so, yes. A lot of Beckett is to do with clowns, especially in Godot. Everything has to be done properly, every movement, expression, and of course Beckett’s pauses… The clown has always been about sorrow, the tragi-comic. It is a dying art, they won’t come again…”

Wall made his stage debut aged two, with his father, who, like his mother, came from a long theatrical background. He began with his famous funny walks, as ‘The Boy With The Obedient Feet’, playing music-hall, variety, and the clubs. Later came radio, pantomime, even, much later, a tour with Mott The Hopple alongside a juggler and knife thrower.

After a one-man show just before the end of music hall – “It was The Beatles and bingo that killed off music-hall, before TV came along” – he turned to theatre and played The Caretaker and Osborne’s The Entertainer before discovering Beckett. Television has been a powerful distraction for him – usually for the money. But playing Beckett is what really satisfied him.

“I do love Beckett, especially Godot, which I did at The Royal Exchange and Open University. It is very demanding, you know. For the readings you have just the face and the voice… In my younger days, Act Without Words (a Beckett mime) would’ve been perfect for me. Wonderful writing.”

At 78, Wall admits Krapp to be a demanding part, but doesn’t find, as Billie Whitelaw said recently before playing the savage monologue Not I, that the role affects him adversely.

“That’s just like the old actor who says: ‘I am Drained, my dear boy’.”

It isn’t true ?
“It is a load of old cobblers, hahaha. It does take it out of you, yes, it’s the concentration, you see. Theatre is exhausting, we go out there and become different people, we do give of ourselves. But you leave it behind you, you have to, you can’t carry it round with you.”

Does it make you sad to play Krapp ?
“Yes, it does make me sad. I feel sad for him, more than for me. I know those feelings very well, it’s very nostalgic for me. When people leave like that, or when you leave them, you know that that period of your life will never occur again.”

Wall’s own life has been fraught with scandals, bankruptcy, drinking problems. Brought up in a tempestuous theatrical family, he watched both his father and his beloved stepfather die, endured three divorces and was painfully disowned and hated by his five children.

“Yes, I’ve had quite a life, really from the beginning,” he sighs.

His autobiography, The Fool On The Hill, details these events with painful honesty.
“It’s a very personal story. I called it The Fool On The Hill because I have loved my profession before everything else. The house we had in Jersey was on a hill…before the Inland Revenue took it from me… I put a lot of myself into that book. Kept a lot back though. Like Krapp says ‘Keep that back’, all that…”

The most moving passage is his account of his return home from a tour to find his wife and children gone, with just a note saying: “You will end up alone, and with nothing.”

Now he has. He lives alone in a London bed-sitter but says he is “quite happy, yes. I choose to live alone. After three divorces, a little common sense enters the old bonce you know… I’m happy as long as I’m working. I laugh at everything. I think everything in life is extremely funny, the way we run around like lost ants… Happiness is a state of mind, anyway. You can be happy at ten o’clock and unhappy at five past. Happiness is not a lasting condition…”