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Krapp’s Last Tape review: Stephen Rea invites us to applaud the tape recorder – but the triumph is his

The actor had the forethought to record Krapp’s early tapes 12 years ago. What a pleasure to see, and hear, the result in the intimacy of Project Arts Centre

Krapp’s Last Tape

Project Arts Centre, Dublin


If he will forgive the pointing out, Stephen Rea has reached the age at which those nearby dare to mention King Lear. Or Krapp. It seems Rea had an inkling someone might someday want him to play Samuel Beckett’s durable anatomist of memory. Twelve years ago, he recorded the early tapes, the character already sour at 39, that Krapp, now 69 and alone, replays as he prepares to lay down possible final thoughts. When the director Vicky Featherstone suggested Rea play the role for Landmark Productions, it transpired he already had half his performance in the can.

Could you tell if the information wasn’t in the programme? Hard to say. He sounds convincingly like himself – then not far off 40 – in The Company of Wolves, but Rea always had the lugubrious drawl of an older man. The knowledge does, for an aware audience, place an extra layer of distance between old and youngish Krapp. That’s something.

The narrative is so familiar it has taken on the quality of fable. An old man eats a banana in a fashion of which Buster Keaton would approve before moving to a pile of his own solo recordings. He is particularly interested in one from 30 years ago. Sketchy impressions emerge (many autobiographical to Beckett). Krapp’s mother dies as her son throws a ball to a dog. He recalls an epiphany at a pier. A painfully beautiful re-creation of romantic moments in a punt reminds us that one of Beckett’s earliest works was a monograph on Proust.


First performed in 1958 by Patrick Magee, the one-hander has been revived by such celebrated performers as David Kelly, Michael Gambon and John Hurt. Rea’s performance, played before an array of theatrical royalty on the first night, contrasts markedly with Magee’s quiet thunder. It is lighter, fresher, more mischievous. When Rea moves back along an illuminated path – an expressionist bridge from Dr Caligari – he takes little steps like those of a waiter trying not to spill the soup. When he plays with the word “spool”, he suggests one of Oliver Postgate’s Clangers. There is something of the same TV legend’s Bagpuss about the current Krapp in repose. This version is as disappointed as any other. He is no more delighted at exchanging the hope of love for creative frustration. “He’s had to live with the emptiness ever since,” Featherstone says of that choice. Rea’s playful, Postgateian inclinations make those sorrows all the more poignant. There are still traces of the child in the old man.

What a pleasure to see this production in the intimate space of Project Arts Centre. Paul Keogan’s seductively intelligent lighting design works minute changes on a collapsed balloon of a face. Jamie Vartan’s set design is clean and stark. Eccentric details stick in the mind. The long, long drawer. The dust cascading off a huge dictionary. At the inevitable ovation Rea invites us to applaud the tape recorder, but, as with any successful production of Krapp, the triumph lies principally with the lead. Lear is still out there.

Krapp’s Last Tape is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, until February 3rd

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist