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Krapp’s Last tape, Sheffield Crucible, review: A rare miss that shuts out audience


Surely after a lifetime of service to theatre, television and film Richard Wilson deserves better than to be locked in a sound proof box and spun creakily in the darkness of an overheated and airless studio theatre?

The 78-year-old’s greatest invention, the irascible Victor Meldrew, would certainly never have tolerated it, although he would have conjured wonderful comedy out of it.

The setting of this, the gloomiest of Beckett’s dark canon, must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Marooned in a hermetically sealed portable cabin, surrounded by the detritus of filth from a life poorly lived, Krapp’s isolation is, it is true, vividly represented.

So too, in theory, is the idea of relaying all the sound over the theatre’s PA system, underscoring the thwarted voice of the play’s only protagonist, an enticing one.

Yet the problem is that these devices sever all connection between audience and performer.

It feels almost impossible to gain access to the world created by Wilson – in all its haunting insularity - something that is not helped by the intermittent crackles of the sound system and the irritating squeak of the building itself as it revolves noisily and ever-so-slightly dizzyingly through the 40 long, bleak minutes of the performance.

So unremitting appears this production in its determination to shut the audience out, that those technical failures could well have been deliberate, although they are not.

For an actor this is a strange role. It starts with a long silent opening which eats into the first quarter of the play and during which we are treated to some mild banana-related slapstick, pacing and sitting before the protracted rummaging for the spool that will take us to the heart of the piece.

The majority of the speeches are played on the eponymous tapes – birthday messages from Krapp’s younger, disappointed self to the old broken 69-year-old marinated in years of failure and isolation he has become.

It is brutal and bleak stuff. Yet the power of the recollections, the grim humour of the responses and the Spartan beauty of Beckett’s prose come across only in flashes and the audience is forced to crane forward in an effort to catch what it can.

Even for a crepuscular play this is dimly lit to the point of not being able to make out what is going on. 

And in the final scene as Krapp allows the tape to play out revealing the full heartbreak of his plight, the machine itself breaks down, forcing Wilson to endure the final moments alone with the motionless spools before dropping his head into his hands.

Director Polly Findlay did a fine job with A Taste of Honey at this theatre two years ago whilst designer Alex Lowde produced a great set for Enjoy, the opener in the recent Alan Bennett season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds

This however is a rare miss for Sheffield Theatres made worse by technical difficulties.

To 19 July