Krapp's Last Tape, Theatre Upstairs, London

An opening pause, then Pinter puts in an uncanny performance
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The Independent Culture

People will predictably joke that it opened, all too appropriately, with a protracted pause. Not strictly true because a pause has to be between two things. But Ian Rickson's lovely, exquisitely judged production of Krapp's Last Tape - which stars a playwright you may have heard of called Harold Pinter - opens with a truly hypnotic silent prelude.

They have junked all the feeble business with the banana, thank God (Samuel Beckett had few faults as a dramatist, but a weakness for slapstick was one of them). Instead, Pinter's Krapp sits marooned in a pool of light at his desk brooding intensely as if spoiling for a self-destructive internal fight. The effect is uncanny for two reasons.

First, there's the electric cognitive dissonance and built-in irony. Here is the man we know to be our greatest living dramatist playing a disastrously failed and flawed writer (or would-be writer).

Krapp is the man who, in a deluded bargain with life, renounced the possibility of love, withdrew from the world so as to put the weight of full (and narrow) concentration on his work, and was left with nothing to write about.

Secondly, there's the setting. The combination of Pinter's presence and Hildegard Bechtler's set (hauntingly lit by Paule Constable) creates the atmosphere of a great painting that has suddenly bulged into 3-D and begun to twitch with nervous life.

"Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited" declares the 39-year-old Krapp on one of the tapes that we watch the 69-year-old listening to. The production captures the feel of a greyed-down, depopulated world - sometimes faintly washed with the spectral sound of very distant bells. Pinter, though moving around in a motorised, comically stately wheelchair, gives a performance that in facial expression and gesture beautifully communicates the black comedy and pain in this play. The early silent minutes are extraordinary.

The eyes burn with a dull fire as if looking at something a thousand miles within. The mouth makes movements as though trying to cope with the distasteful cud of a regurgitated reflection. There's a moment of brilliantly timed physical farce when at a potential emotional peak of revelation on one of the recordings, a misplaced elbow sends a tower of tapes crashing to the floor in anarchic anticlimax.

The voice is not in top condition, but Pinter overcomes its relative frailty with the force that comes from moral courage and principled stubbornness. Does it matter that this Krapp sounds impossibly distinguished (just like the performer/playwright) or is it part of the joke on Krapp that here we have a costive second-rater who has the commanding tones of a Nobel laureate?

Who would have thought when he gave his televised acceptance speech last November that he bounce back in a solo acting role at the Royal Court in a gesture of gratitude to his great friend Samuel Beckett (whose centenary this is) and of support to the Royal Court in its 50th birthday year?

An honour to be there, really.