Appointed Associate Director of Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in 2009, Richard Wilson has since directed a succession of plays in the Studio space, including the regional premiere of Polly Stenham’s That Face, yet Krapp’s Last Tape marks the first time the 78 year old has performed in the space as an actor.
In one sense, Beckett’s gruff, grouchy Krapp should be the perfect character for the man whose most famous television role remains the irascible Victor Meldrew. Mortality also casts a long shadow in Krapp’s Last Tape, with its central image of a man listening to a recording of his 39 year old self.
Polly Findlay’s direction sees her moving away from Beckett’s strict stage directions. It’s a brave, albeit not altogether successful, move. Wilson sits in a revolving transparent shed. Krapp’s isolation from other people is therefore reflected in his isolation from the audience. The lighting is extraordinarily gloomy – to the point where it’s hard to see anything at all – while the sound design is dizzyingly disorientating, bouncing all around the theatre’s auditorium, so little moments like Krapp sighing, or chewing one of his beloved bananas, or simply pouring a drink, are amplified to an unnerving degree.
The production rests on Wilson’s performance and he is excellent, eloquent even in his silence, whether it be eating a banana or listening to the open-reel tape which contains the essence his younger self, his body language, slumped, pouched, be-cardiganed; his posture conveys his loneliness and sense of failure perfectly. (His pronunciation of the word ‘spool’ is worth the price of admission alone).
Findlay’s production, even though it’s just 40 minutes long, feels much longer. Wilson is great but his performance is obscured, visually and aurally; after a while the whole experience begins to feel soul-crushingly depressing, the darkness – literal and figurative – taking its toll. While the staging is certainly ambitious and striking, the constant motion becomes disorientating, and the sound quality of the younger Krapp’s tape is hampered by the irritating squeak that the revolving panel makes throughout the production. Static and microphone crackle are also exaggerated, and the revolve inevitably means that everyone in the audience is, at times, seeing the back of Wilson’s head, missing out on his reactions, the tiny shifts in his expression which give the piece its power.
The shed-like structure may symbolise isolation but it also disconnects Wilson from the audience in a way that’s problematic. The effect is of a group of people observing rather than engaging with the actor, and no matter how finely nuanced Wilson’s performance is – and it is – he’s hamstrung from the start.