Reviews West End & Central Published 23 June 2015

Krapp’s Last Tape

Barbican Theatre ⋄ 19th - 21st June 2015


Stewart Pringle

It’s been a while since I’ve heard a good Boo-ing. And this, by my standards at least, was quite a good Boo-ing. Loud; sonorous; briefly picked up by another, but rapidly dropped again and returned to the sole dominion of the primary Boo-er. Best of all, it found an answer from the front of the stalls, as a bloke with a beard, who looked like the sort of bloke with a beard who I don’t want to get stuck next to in a beer garden, shouted back ‘Whoever booed – you’re a fucking idiot!’, to scattered applause.

It’s probably been quite a while since Wilson has had a Boo-ing, too, such is his assured place in the history of late 20th century avant-garde performance. His productions are visually precise, carefully (some might say tediously) paced and light on social, political or theological content. Frequently performed in white-face, on large and impressive stages, with thunderous sound effects and an emphasis on structure over narrative and the mechanical over the organic, they are like giant watches, the actors radium-powdered hands and cogs and springs in the darkness.

Wilson is a part of that neoconservative postmodernism that seeks to further liberate modernism from its framing contexts rather than reject its principles, he seems as uncontroversial as a Mondrian. Part of our stately artistic inheritance, like Beckett, and like Krapp, which Wilson has been presenting in this form for the past six years.

And yet BOOOOOO!! BOOOOOO!! Big, fat, concerted BOOOOOOO!! And I don’t blame them. I was Boo-ing in my heart. I’d been Boo-ing in my heart for the past hour and ten.

I started Boo-ing in my heart about half-way through Wilson’s opening, in which Beckett’s mime of drawers, boxes, keys and bananas trails through twenty-five minutes of streaming projected rain and an irritation of white noise that would leave your average power electronics band pleading for a tempo-shift, or at least some ear plugs. It’s unforgiving, and it’s alienating, but more than that it’s empty. Wilson is well known for his use of the imagery of the silent comedy, of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, but what does it tell us or offer us, scooped out and stretched long and flat as it is here?

Things only get worse, and the heart-jeers louder, when Wilson breaks into the text. Like a painted and lugubrious cat he jerks through Krapp’s forty minutes of recollection and offstage drinking. There are the motions, and Wilson goes through them, but any meaning behind them, or resonance they might generate, is ground down and away by the arch and metronomic delivery. The voice of his younger self lacks any hint of the arrogance or stupidity the older Krapp detects and derides. The lost love and the dandling on a punt are reduced to little more than words. The world may indeed feel uninhabited, but only because everything except its surface has been so thoroughly evacuated.

Part of this, at least, is owing to Wilson’s design, a huge and impressive office with a stack of cabinet that reaches up like the bars of a cage and lines of dimly lit desks stretching back like workstations from Terry Gillian’s Brazil. Like the constant and purposeful shifts in lighting, they are worked and worked out to the finest degree and the highest pitch, but they offer nothing other than second-hand thoughts or emotions. They reference the films of Fritz Lang and Robert Wiene, but they bring nothing new to these references. They are picturesque, which is just about the worst thing that can be said about just about anything.

This is the kind of self-important and visually bloated Beckett that I always imagine others imagining when they imagine they hate his guts. It’s the kind of cold and glacial Beckett and anti-fun performance art that makes me a little embarrassed of loving both. Wilson wears red socks in this production, and I swear, I swear, a few people genuinely laughed at them when they first appeared. At socks. BOOOO! BOOOOOO!

He may be vitally important, he may ‘leave his imprint’ on great works, but while Wilson builds his world, meticulously, gimlet-eyed; as he defines its crisp edges and fastidious references, something dull and deathly creeps in at the window.



Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Krapp’s Last Tape Show Info

Written by Samuel Beckett

Cast includes Robert Wilson



Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.