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
“I would say, for instance, that Dame Edith Evans was definitive in the role of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest . Many people have tried to play it differently and have fallen, I think, well short – because there is a cadence. And if you don’t follow that musical cadence, it won’t work.”
One new thing Hurt does bring to Krapp, though, is that he actually looks a bit like Beckett. Or is that just accidental? “I do contrive to,” he says. “When my hair is white and it’s short like this, it’s very similar to his cut and so on. Let’s say I can give that impression. I mean, I don’t really look like Beckett at all. God. I should be so lucky.”
As food is ferried discreetly to and from our table in a quiet corner of a hotel breakfast room – Hurt has a plate of fresh fruit followed by two boiled eggs – we chat about the developments that may one day render Krapp and his tapes technologically, if not emotionally, obsolete.
“Think of printing, which eliminated writing,” Hurt offers. Before that again, writing was regarded as such a threat to memory and the oral tradition. And now . . . he pats his pocket. Mobile phones remember everything for us.
At 73, Hurt says he has never had a problem remembering lines. “But I’m terrible with names. This is what makes me feel old. I hate it. I find myself saying, ‘Who’s that?’ And my wife says, ‘Well, it’s so-and-so. You saw them at such-and-such.’ And I don’t remember. Frightening.”
Is he shy at all? Would that be why people sometimes don’t register? “I can be,” he says doubtfully. “Oh, but I can be bombastic as well. I’m horrible sometimes.”
His peers would beg to differ. At the 2012 Bafta awards, when he was given a lifetime-achievement award, the applause, warm and genuine, went on and on. Was it wonderful? Embarrassing? “More baffling than embarrassing,” he says.
Looking back on a career in which he has played Caligula in the miniseries I, Claudius , Jesus in Mel Brooks ’s irreverent A History of the World Part One , Control in the recent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the wonderful Jellon Lamb in the Australian film The Proposition – as well as creating the voices for a profusion of small-screen classics, from Human Planet to The Gruffalo’s Child – clearly doesn’t strike him as disturbing or threatening.
“Well, I’m so much more in the know about things that I’ve done than other people,” he says. “That’s one of the things when you get an award like that. You think, Do you know how conceited I was at this particular period of my life? Nobody’s life is all saintly. You’re such a mixture of stuff.”
Mention of saintliness prompts me to ask about the influence of his father, an Anglican vicar, on his life. “I was brought up as an Anglican, but I went to a boarding school which was so high church that it made Rome look positively puritanical,” he says. “The Mass was in Latin, we had the sacrament in the tabernacle on the altar, the whole bit. So I don’t think my prep-school upbringing was any different from that of my Catholic friends, who went through the same sort of thing – including the same sort of abuse, and all of that.”