Theatre preview: Krapp’s Last Tape, Sheffield Crucible

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Richard Wilson is a polite man, but you would get grumpy if a role you played meant people shouted a catchphrase at you in the street on an all-too-regular basis. This has been the curse of playing one of the most loved television characters of recent years.

Victor Meldrew was genuinely one of the great television roles.

Fortunately for him, Wilson is so much more than that one role. An enormously accomplished stage actor, he is also considered one of the country’s best directors of new theatre, a skill which he has been showing off in his role as an associate director at Sheffield Crucible.

Now he is taking on a role created by one of the stage’s greatest writers. Richard Wilson in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape is set to be quite a combination.

When all this is outlined to director Polly Findlay, I jokingly ask if there’s any pressure. “Thanks for reminding me about all 
that. There wasn’t any pressure, but now there is,” says Findlay. She is also joking.

The young talent (she was a recipient of the JMK Award for Young Directors) appears to have the perfect combination of youth and experience that allows her to take on a behemoth of a play like Krapp’s Last Tape.

“There is an enormous cultural history and a weight and a scholarship behind this piece of work,” she says.

“It’s also visually iconic and the stage directions so precise, that so much of it feels like it has been captured in your mind already.

“It’s almost as though huge parts of it are Kodak snapshots already captured. The challenge is in making it feel like a piece of new writing, of making it fresh and immediate.”

Krapp’s Last Tape, like most of Beckett, has been analysed in tomes of research over the years. At its heart it is an incredibly simple idea: Krapp sits alone on his 69th birthday and listens to tapes he made thirty years ago. But as with all Beckett, simplicity means anything but simple.

“The language, the boldness, the action of the piece – there is literally nowhere to hide on this piece, you can’t hide behind a smokescreen or window dressing, there is simply nowhere to go,” says Findlay.

The team of Findlay and Wilson would appear pretty well-equipped to meet this challenge.

Findlay has worked at Sheffield previously, assisting on Promises Promises and returning to the city with her version of A Taste of Honey. Wilson’s record is well known

She says: “Despite all the massive cultural weight that comes with it, it is ultimately a study in heartbreak.

The emotional firepower of the piece is absolutely massive.

“Once you strip away from it all the culturally significant aspects, it becomes a 40-minute piece of a man on stage reliving the emotion and experience of his heart breaking.”

Rehearsed in London for a fortnight before moving to Sheffield for its three-week run, this is what Findlay and Wilson have been working towards discovering – the essence of the piece.

Having directed several one man shows, including Derren Brown’s stage show, Findlay is used to the notion of a cast of one. “When you direct a show with more than one person, the actor generally has something to resist and that something is represented by another human.

“In this case, when you take the other human away, you have just yourself, there’s nothing else to butt up against so you have to find the thing that they are resisting somewhere else. Because Richard is such a fabulous director it really has been a collaborative process.”

Although there is only one person on stage, there are a number of ‘characters’ mentioned throughout. The play is considered to be Beckett at his most autobiographical, and it does draw heavily on biographical detail.

He once told the scholar Lawrence Harvey, though, that his “work does not depend on experience – [it is] not a record of experience. Of course you use it.”

Krapp’s Last Tape is playing at the Crucible Studio, Sheffield from June 25 to July 19.