Krapp’s Last Tape review – Stephen Rea is hauntingly good in Beckett’s masterpiece

<span>Photograph: Patricio Cassinoni</span>
Photograph: Patricio Cassinoni

Making his annual tape recording on the eve of his birthday, Krapp (Stephen Rea) lingers over words, as if English is not his first language. “Spool. Spooooool,” he pronounces, as he searches for reels of tape recorded in years past. Reminding us that Samuel Beckett wrote many of his works in French, it is one of a number of tiny, clever touches in Vicky Featherstone’s production.

Beckett’s celebrated play from 1958 is so precisely composed in its interplay of language, movement and silence that any new variations tend to be all in the detail. As the 69-year-old Krapp listens to tape recordings of his younger self, he pauses and interjects. Rea’s eyes register minute flickers of emotion, his years of performing to camera adding a subtlety that seems effortless.

Bemused by the confident delivery of the 39-year-old on tape, Krapp mocks his younger self’s artistic ambition. As he berates himself for his lack of achievement in the intervening years, Rea brings a harsh, almost sarcastic tone to his self-criticism, deepening its pathos. Not only does Krapp feel like a failure but he has to kick himself about it as well.

Whatever hint of sentimentality there might have been is dispelled here, and also in the playful opening sequence, where Rea shuffles along in striped socks and white boots, evoking the clowning and vaudeville touches of other Beckett plays. Set designer Jamie Vartan’s strikingly sharp cut-out stage and diagonal walkway are outlined in pristine white light by Paul Keogan, to suggest silent cinema.

One particular recording haunts Krapp, noted in his ledger as “Farewell to love”. Its recollection of a lovers’ tryst on a river is so tenderly evoked that it is a jolt to hear the line, spoken calmly: “I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good going on and she agreed, without opening her eyes.” Returning to this pivotal time in his life, Krapp cradles the tape recorder in a gesture of engulfing loneliness.

Celebrating the 20th anniversary of Landmark Productions, this restrained, delicately calibrated production reunites Featherstone with Rea, whom she directed in Cyprus Avenue. It is an inspired pairing.

• At Project Arts Centre, Dublin, until 3 February