John Hurt: ‘I don’t really look like Beckett at all. God. I should be so lucky’
The veteran actor returns to Dublin to perform ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’, in a role he has been developing for more than a decade
Unfazed: John Hurt says he’s not concerned by the mention of the great Krapps who have preceded him, such as Patrick Magee, Harold Pinter and Michael Gambon. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
An examined life: John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape. Photograph: Ryan Miller
Breakfast interviews often turn out to be a bad idea. You can easily end up with a recorded interview that you can’t really hear because it’s full of clanking spoons and background music, and either one or both of you hasn’t fully woken up yet.
But when they said would you like to have breakfast with John Hurt, I forgot about all that. Who’s going to pass up the chance to share a rack of toast with the man who has provided some of your favourite cinema moments? That heartbreaking face finally uncovered near the end of The Elephant Man . Max the heroin addict offering world-weary counsel to the hapless Billy in Midnight Express . And that fantastic scene in Alien when the Thing wriggles, bleeding and toothy, out of Hurt’s chest.
Hurt is in town to play the shambolic hero in Samuel Beckett’s one-man play Krapp’s Last Tape at the Gate Theatre, a role with which he has been associated for 14 years and for which he has earned critical praise.
“I was living in Wicklow when Michael Colgan first asked me to do it,” he says, referring to the theatre’s director. “He came up to the Roundwood Inn. It was, shall we say, holiday time. And I wasn’t exactly sober. I said, ‘Let me think about it.’ Of course I put it off. I was always a bit worried about Beckett. I thought I didn’t know enough about it and that you had to be a bit of an intellectual to take it on. And I wasn’t scoring myself as such. In the end I said yes.
“Six months later Michael asked me again. I said, ‘Michael, I said I’d do it.’ And he said, ‘I know, but you were drunk at the time.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m telling you now, and I’m drunk now.’ Eventually we all sobered up and put it on.”
The production – sometimes directed by Colgan, sometimes not – has since played at the Barbican and in the West End of London, as well as touring to Washington, New York and Los Angeles.
“I think – I hope – it’s a better production now than it was to begin with,” Hurt says of the current incarnation, which opens at the Gate next week. “I’m hugely fond of the play, and I’m always amazed that it reaches half as far as it does. It seems to have its own kind of magic. In fact, I get worried talking about it, because I think, Maybe it’s like stardust and it will all disappear.”
Beckett being Beckett, there’s very little there to begin with. The sparsest of stagings – just Krapp and his tape recorder and those precious spools of tape, really – and the minimum of dialogue. “Yes. He takes absolutely everything away. And we keep taking more and more away, as the years go by.”
Hurt is unfazed by the mention of the great Krapps who have preceded him, such as Harold Pinter, Michael Gambon and Patrick Magee (for whom Beckett wrote the play). There’s no such thing as a definitive performance in the theatre, he says – otherwise, what would be point of going to see new productions? On the other hand, no good can come of straining to be different just for the sake of it.