Krapp's Last Tape, Barbican, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fivestar -->

Rage against the machine
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Krapp's Last Tape offers the most moving of Beckett's many double acts: an old man and his recorded memories. It also makes unusual demands of an actor's face and voice, for there is an odd distribution of labour in this short masterpiece.

Making an audio diary that reviews the preceding year is a birthday ritual of the protagonist - a case of many unhappy returns. So we focus intently on the 69-year-old Krapp's expression as he, and we, listen closely to the taped musings of his 39-year-old self, who is heard scoffing at the aspirations and resolutions that a still younger Krapp confided to the machine. In this interplay between the live and the recorded, skills that normally work in tandem have, for long stretches, to operate in separate spheres. You therefore need an actor with extraordinary facial and vocal presence to do the piece full justice.

John Hurt, who reprises the role in this revival of Robin Lefevre's excellent production, is dream casting. That sandpaper-and-silk voice pulls you with a sepulchral seductiveness into Krapp's past. And with his cockatoo shock of grey hair and deeply lined visage, the figure he cuts is much more the failed and wrecked professional author than the senile clown, despite all the unfunny business with the bananas at the start (one of Beckett's few faults being his weakness for slapstick). It is good that the emphasis falls here, for one of the desolate ironies of the piece is that withdrawal from the world, in a deluded bargain that sacrificed happiness for concentrated creativity, has left Krapp with nothing to write about.

His seamed features bespeaking a world of drink, disappointment, suffering and loss, Hurt communicates better than any actor I have seen in the part the tension between Krapp's mourning for the past and his derision of it. With contemptuous impatience, he fast-forwards beyond the section where his younger self records a moment of artistic and spiritual revelation experienced in the previous year. Time has proved that meaningless. It is to an episode of erotic intimacy in a punt that he keeps being drawn back, and his arms embrace the tape recorder and his head inclines towards its spools as if in a gesture of remembered tenderness.

The temporal juxtapositions are beautifully handled: for example, in the more defensive and/or embittered note you hear in the oldster's laughter whenever he joins in with the cackling of the middle-aged Krapp. There's a deadly sense of disgust in the expertly timed snapping on and off of switches, the rewinding and the racing ahead. Lefevre's production achieves an extraordinary purity of focus and poetic intensity. The long, brooding silences as the protagonist directs his haunted stare into the abyss of memory create a highly charged stillness. "Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited," the 39-year-old had reported without complaint. Thirty years on, marooned in the pool of light over his desk, Hurt's elderly Krapp lets you see the fearfulness of that isolation. Making his last recording, he notes that he "crawled out once or twice, before the summer was told. Sat shivering in the park and burning to be gone". The terrible fervour with which Hurt intones that last phrase leaves you in no doubt that a part of Krapp desperately desires extinction. But this is complicated by agonised nostalgia. Tears fill Hurt's eyes as his Krapp listens again to the passage about lying with the woman in the punt. And then there is the devastating final twist.

The tape runs on and the protagonist hears the middle-aged self who has renounced love for work deliver a now bleakly ironic postscript: "Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn't want them back." A superb performance of a great play.

To 6 May (020-7638 8891)