Tony’s Last Tape finds the late, lionised Labour heavyweight, Tony Benn, in his twilight days, sat in his study, ruminating on “the battle to be fought, over and over again” and picking through highlights of his journey from “Baby of the House” to “National Treasure”, in the manner of Beckett’s Krapp.
Like Krapp, Benn is raging against the dying of the light. For all his talk of “stopping”, and his fading physical energy, he can’t call it quits, not while there’s work to be done. Early on, he reels off the list of Labour leaders he’s sparred with, uttering the name of each with precisely the same level of invective, even as they span fifty years of history and memory. It’s the same tone he uses towards the end, when he confesses David Cameron has been reading his diaries. Age has not actually diminished his inner fire all that much.
This isn’t merely politics though. Benn the family man is much in evidence. Speaking to his tape recorder, he’s talking as much to his late wife Caroline and late brother Mike, as he is to any future archivist. He recalls a domestic life that was always, and possibly will always be if his offspring continue the family business, enveloped by political struggle; it’s the source of a little, but surprisingly little, personal regret. Strangely, there’s no reference to Benn renouncing his peerage, an odd omission given the part it plays in his political life.
The homage to Beckett adds a layer to the piece, and there’s a few knowing references, but not so to undermine this as a play in its own right. Philip Bretherton‘s portrayal of Benn is considered. He has the man’s mannerisms down pat, and vocal inflections too, although he occasionally slips into History Today mode. When he steps it up a gear for the full political oratory, it’s stirring stuff.
Tony’s Last Tape makes a fitting tribute to one of the key left-wing figures of the late 20th century. And who knows? With Jeremy Corbyn poised to be the new Labour leader, maybe the battle he was fighting is about to roar back into life.