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John Hurt in 'Krapp's Last Tape'

John Hurt in the Gate Theater’s production of Krapp’s Last Tape (photo by Anthony Woods)
Actor John Hurt and Samuel Beckett's dark and grimly charming play Krapp's Last Tape represent an ideal marriage of performer and material. The Shakespeare Theater Company is presenting just that combination this week at the Lansburgh Theater. In a production created at Gate Theater Dublin, directed by Michael Colgan, Hurt hits the sweet spot between buffoonery and bitterness. Beckett wrote the play as a monologue for Northern Irish actor Patrick Magee in 1957, and it is known in several versions. In this version, seen last night, Hurt omitted the actual singing of the Anglican hymn Now the day is over (text by Sabine Baring-Gould, known with several tunes), for example, although the references to going to Vespers and singing remain. It was the only major change to the text that was easy to spot, and it was an excision that the playwright himself endorsed later in life, finding the character's singing of the hymn "too clumsily explicit."

In the stage directions, Beckett described Krapp as "a wearish old man," whose body and voice creak with age and who is "very near-sighted (but unspectacled) [and] hard of hearing." Costumed in dusty clothes and outrageously squeaky shoes, Hurt is typically comfortable in the dryness of silence that punctuates the spare text. (Hurt also performed the role for a film version directed by Atom Egoyan, which is even gloomier -- see video embedded below.) Marooned in a square of warm light (designed by James McConnell), the edges of which he tests with a snicker in the wordless opening, Hurt looked tensely over his shoulder twice -- a gesture in the stage directions that Beckett reportedly claimed was the character's anxious glimpse at the waiting figure of death. It is a tension that is balanced by the absurd sequences with the bananas, for example, which Hurt peeled and ate quite conspicuously (sometimes, a banana is just a banana).

Other Reviews:

Peter Mark, The gentle authority of John Hurt in ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ (Washington Post, December 1)
Krapp is celebrating his 69th birthday with an annual ritual, having a drink and recording himself speaking on a tape about the year just passed. The work is not really a monologue but Krapp's dialogue with an older version of himself, as he listens to and grates against another such recording he made thirty years previously. (The interaction of the actor with himself recalls similar multi-layered techniques by minimalist composers like Steve Reich.) Many of the details that Krapp grapples with are drawn, in a thinly veiled way, from Beckett's own life, although Krapp is a failed writer, someone who apparently gave up a chance at love and happiness to listen to the conceited ideas of his muse, ideas that inflame the Krapp of thirty years ago with pride but that only rankle the Krapp of the present because of their ultimate failure. The most touching moment in Hurt's performance was completely unspoken: as Krapp listened to his younger self's narration of an embrace with an old flame, he imperceptibly went from merely listening to the reel-to-reel playback to embracing and caressing the box, as lost in the memory as we were.

John Hurt performs in Krapp's Last Tape through this Sunday, December 4, at the Lansburgh Theater. It then goes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (December 6 to 18).

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