Editors' pick

Krapp's Last Tape

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Editorial Review

The gentle authority of John Hurt in ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’

By Peter Marks
Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011

What is that man of mature vintage thinking as he sits in the stark rectangle of light, staring out at us with those wistful, hooded eyes? The miracle of superlative acting is that an audience can be held, and fully stirred, by a gesture as gentle and neutral as a far-off gaze.

In his definitive turn as the brooding, coughing Krapp of Samuel Beckett's absurdist classic "Krapp's Last Tape," John Hurt invites you to wonder anew at the solitary figure who listens to a recording of his own voice from a night long ago, and in that act expresses the tragicomic weight of time passing, body disintegrating and love receding.

You'd imagine that an actor engaged in the existential Kabuki of Beckett, meticulously enacting the rituals of this half-century-old one-act play, might afflict us with a sense of a road slowly traveled.

Quite the contrary occurs in the Lansburgh Theatre, where the Shakespeare Theatre Company is presenting the piece through Sunday, before it moves on to a limited run in New York. "Krapp's Last Tape," directed with crackling intelligence by the Gate Theatre of Dublin's Michael Colgan, seems to whiz by in 55 keenly observed minutes.

As an actor, the 71-year-old Hurt is not so much unsung as under-sung; maybe it's because he rarely repeats himself (except in a small recurring role in the "Harry Potter" movies) and gravitates toward the offbeat. Have you ever seen his heart-piercingly dignified Quentin Crisp in the 1975 "The Naked Civil Servant"? Or his crazily serene Caligula in the "I, Claudius" mini-series of the same era? You no doubt could add your own favorites to this catalogue. As it turns out, Hurt's exquisite capabilities resound, too, on a stage. Here, he proves himself to be a maestro of stillness.

As with "The Tempest," "Krapp's Last Tape" seems an ever more meaningful statement as a spectator gets older. It's not until your own joints begin to ache that you can really appreciate the agonized choreography of Krapp's shuffling (in risibly squeaky shoes) from his desk piled high with reels of tape to the cabinet offstage where he cushions the blows of memory with drink.

And memory for Krapp is not a cluttered shelf in his consciousness. It's an electronic archive of his lyrical musings, recorded over the decades; as a result, they stay forever retrievable. "Box three . . . spool five . . . " he intones, cross-checking in a thick, dusty account book for the spot in the narrative of his life he's about to revisit. "Farewell to . . . love," he reads, as he turns the page and presses a button on the old reel-to-reel. Soon, we're listening to Hurt's Krapp in a voice from 30 years earlier, describing a carnal interlude with a lover.

You're compelled to wonder: Is it a recollection he fast-forwards to often? Is it entertainment or penance? Does the replaying relieve loneliness? Or intensify it?

We monitor the incremental changes in Hurt's expression - a minor adjustment of his eyebrows, the slightest upturning of his chin - for clues as to what this means to the old man. Occasionally, the actor pauses and glances over his shoulder, as if Krapp is afraid someone is there. Or, more to the point, perhaps he wishes someone were.

Is there a gene for watchability? Hurt has an instinct for just how much emotion needs to register on his features. (And with his lean, sallow countenance and thick, cropped hair, he looks uncannily like the playwright.)

As Krapp becomes more agitated and absorbed by the narration, Hurt enfolds the tape recorder in his arms, as if his impulse were to protect it. An audience seeks to envelop this actor in an embrace of comparable appreciation.

John Hurt channels Beckett

By Jess Righthand
Friday, Nov. 25, 2011

Over the past five decades, British actor John Hurt has appeared in more movies than one might think humanly possible. His more than 100 films include "V for Vendetta," "The Elephant Man" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," parts one and two. He is currently on-screen in the sci-fi drama "Melancholia" and the fantasy-action flick "Immortals."

But the 71-year-old actor whose face is so familiar to American audiences has never once appeared onstage here.

That changes Tuesday, when Hurt begins a run of Samuel Beckett's 1957 one-act monologue, "Krapp's Last Tape," at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Lansburgh Theatre.

"There have been opportunities [to perform in the States], but always something else came up," Hurt says by phone from his home in London. "I'm very excited to be doing this."

The play focuses on Krapp, a failed writer and recluse with a digestive disorder considerably exacerbated by his affinity for bananas. It is Krapp's 69th birthday. Every year, he records a reflection on the events of the preceding year, which he then catalogues and saves to be listened to on a future birthday. This year, Krapp decides to listen to the tape he made on his 39th birthday, and a description of a romantic liaison stirs regret for the sacrifices he has made throughout his life.

Beckett wrote the monologue for Irish actor Patrick Magee, but Hurt says he thinks the play is semi-autobiographical. "In a sense, it's poor old Krapp. There he is in his bedroom, having denied himself of love in order to be the artist he hopes to be. But really, it is an autobiography of Beckett. Beckett was a troubled writer for a long time . . . until eventually a young publisher took him up. . . . And then, of course, the rest is history."

To evoke that autobiographical dimension, Hurt admits, he has taken steps to look more like Beckett. It's not too much of a stretch, thanks to Hurt's shorter, slicked hair and handsomely weathered face. Beckett "was much better-looking," Hurt says, "but I can see how if you were to put people into families, I could be in the same family."

There is also a self-reflective element to the show. The tape of Krapp's 39-year-old self is a recording Hurt made when he first played the role in 1999 with Ireland's renowned Gate Theatre. So Hurt is actually listening to a younger version of himself as he plays a character doing the same thing.

By now, Hurt is intimately familiar with the material but says he wouldn't be doing his job if the part didn't constantly feel new.

"If you're doing it right, it should always be fresh," he says. "Getting it right, and accurate, and honest and true, and at the same time properly theatrical . . . I love doing it."

Then again, Hurt says, it's not hard to keep playing the same part if it's a great role in the first place.

"A challenge to me is being given a bad play and trying to make it good," he says. "When you're given a very good play, and when your job is to be an actor, it's a joy, not a challenge."