Subscriber OnlyStage

Krapp’s Last Tape: The acting greats who have taken on Samuel Beckett’s one-man play

Stephen Rea is about to join an illustrious line-up that includes John Hurt, Michael Gambon and Patrick Magee

It was the act of hearing a voice on radio that inspired Samuel Beckett to write Krapp’s Last Tape. The voice belonged to the actor Patrick Magee, who was reading from Beckett’s novel Molloy on the BBC Third Programme in December 1957. Krapp’s Last Tape was first performed the next year, at the Royal Court Theatre in London in October 1958, starring Magee as Krapp and directed by Donald McWhinnie.

Krapp is one of Beckett’s most recognisable characters. Audiences watch as this “wearish old man” in rusty black trousers and waistcoat – seated, on his 69th birthday, at his cluttered desk, where he is surrounded by boxes, spools, ledgers and a tape recorder – listens to recordings of himself speaking 30 years ago to the day. Krapp is still alone but with the ghostly voice of his past for company. So far, so Beckett.

From its beginning as a play written for the voice of a specific actor, Krapp’s Last Tape has offered a challenging and emotionally charged role to those who perform it. In Ireland, Krapp has been played by some of the most renowned actors, resulting in memorable productions since it was first performed in Dublin in 1959.

The late 1950s was a critical period for Beckett’s writing and for his relationship with Ireland. All That Fall, the writer’s first drama for radio, was broadcast in January 1957. His second, Embers, followed in 1959. Krapp’s Last Tape came between them, in a year that also saw Beckett withdraw his works from production in Ireland because of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid‘s withdrawal of support for Dublin Theatre Festival, apparently because of its production of works by James Joyce and Seán O’Casey.


Beckett soon relaxed that restriction, and Krapp’s Last Tape had its Irish premiere in 1959, when it was staged by Art Theatre Productions, a group founded by Louis Lentin and Robert Somerset, at the 78-seat Players Theatre at Trinity College Dublin. David Kelly played Krapp in a production that received roundly positive reviews, with Thomas Kilroy describing the play in Hibernia magazine as “a model of clarity and precision”.

Cyril Cusack played Krapp in a production by his own company, staged at the Queen’s Theatre in Dublin in 1960, in a curious double-bill alongside George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man. The Irish Times described Cusack’s production, in June 1960, as featuring “possibly our greatest actor, supported by an Irish cast, presenting two unmistakably Irish pieces”. After Dublin, Cusack toured it to Belfast and onwards to Europe, where it played to festival audiences in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, Antwerp and Paris. His performance earned Cusack the best actor award at the Paris International Theatre Festival in July 1960.

A decade later Krapp was back in Dublin in a new production on the Peacock stage of the Abbey Theatre. Edward Golden played Krapp in a production directed by Seán Cotter. Mícheál Ó hAdha wrote in the show programme that when it comes to the actor and the production of Beckett’s text, “The sound is as important as the meaning.” Shortly afterwards, at the Focus Theatre in June 1973, Krapp was again being internationalised while retaining its core Irish identity. The play was directed and performed by the Australian actor Peter O’Shaughnessy. This production was seen as a clash of theatrical styles, however, as the Focus’s Stanislavsky approach was deemed at odds with Beckett’s work.

Beckett himself directed a staging of the play at the Peacock in May 1980. Announced as “Beckett directs Beckett”, it in fact wasn’t a full homecoming, as the author didn’t make it to the city for the production, which was presented by San Quentin Drama Workshop and the Goodman Theatre of Chicago. Krapp was played by Rick Cluchey, who had been serving a life sentence at San Quentin prison, in California, when he first encountered, and then acted in, Beckett’s plays. Cluchey wrote in the Peacock production’s programme in 1980 that within prisons, “more than any other place in the world, reside true Beckett people. The cast-offs and loonies, the poets of the streets, and all the ‘bleeding meat’ of the entire system. The real folk of our modern wasteland.”

Today the University of Galway library holds one of the largest collections of archives relating to productions of Beckett’s plays, including digitised recordings of the Gate Theatre’s Beckett-festival productions and Beckett productions by the Abbey, Druid, Pan Pan, Corn Exchange and the Lyric. It is captivating to watch David Kelly’s performance at the Gate as he listens, alternately open-mouthed in disbelief and laughing to himself in wry recognition, to the youthful aspirations of his younger self, playing from the tape before him – “Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp – the voice!”

John Hurt also had a long association with the role of Krapp. He recognised the autobiographical elements of the play for Beckett. “The whole piece is about being on your own in every possible way,” the actor told The Irish Times’ late film critic Michael Dwyer in 2006, adding that “to be reminded by a play that you have accepted to live your life in a compromise can be fairly shattering, I imagine”.

Hurt first played Krapp at the Barbican Centre, London, in 1999, directed by Robin Lefèvre, before reaching the Gate in September 2001. The tape used at the Gate was actually the recording of Hurt from the 1999 Barbican production. The actor commented on this remarkable overlapping, noting that “the tape recording goes further and further into time; it’s getting nearer and nearer the basis of the play.”

Michael Gambon played Krapp at the Gate in 2010, bringing a clownish form and Dublinese rhythm to the titular voice. The celebrated Beckett actor Barry McGovern played Krapp at Edinburgh International Festival in 2017, winning acclaim from critics.

Stephen Rea now takes up the role of Krapp in a new production directed by Vicky Featherstone as part of Landmark’s 20th-anniversary season. The production connects many strands across the remarkable history of this play: Rea played Clov in Beckett’s Endgame at the Royal Court in 1976, alongside Patrick Magee and directed by Donald McWhinnie, the duo who staged that first production of Krapp’s Last Tape at the Royal Court – where Featherstone has spent the past decade as artistic director.

The Gate Theatre digital archive contains a cassette of audio used in the 2001 production. It is labelled, appropriately, “Krapp’s Last Tape – Copy”. There is no one true master copy or singular voice of Krapp. With each new actor and production it can always be taped over and made new again, ready to be played once more.

Krapp’s Last Tape is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, from Monday, January 15th, until Saturday, February 3rd, with previews from Thursday, January 11th; Barry Houlihan is archivist at the University of Galway library