Review: Krapp’s Last Tape

John Hurt reels in the years in Beckett’s haunting play.


Krapp’s Last Tape
Gate Theatre, Dublin
**** (Four stars)

When the light comes up, slower than a winter’s sunrise, on a solitary figure hunched over his desk, who are we expecting to find there? Most will say John Hurt, an actor so familiar from film that the intensity and careful gestures of his stage presence may come as a revelation. Others will look for Samuel Beckett, alert to the faint trail of biography in his short play from 1958 and encouraged by Hurt’s physical similarity: white hair teased into a shock, brow deeply etched, a ringer for Beckett’s “thin streak of misery”. But the twist in this fine and disarming production, directed by Michael Colgan, is that we may recognise ourselves.

It is Krapp’s 69th birthday (“the awful occasion”), and his yearly ritual is to assemble a reel-to-reel tape recorder, review a recording from many years before, and finally make another. It is, literally, an act of self-preservation, but the play makes clear that his self has been eroding for sometime. Colgan and Hurt subtly foreshadow his loss when Krapp, shuffling around his bare room, discovers the edge between light and absolute darkness and hovers playfully between warmth and the void.

It’s a rare embellishment of Beckett’s text (Michael Gambon made the same manoeuvre in 2010), but by downplaying the slapstick routine involving bananas, it makes for a more sombre version.

In a production this ascetic you notice such minor changes. In fact, you notice everything. There is no distraction, no set other than a desk beneath a lamp surrounded by velvety darkness (James McConnell’s lighting is minimal and striking), and Hurt’s performance recognises that tiny things acquire huge significance, relishing the word “Spooool!” as an elder man, failing to remember details and bitterly dismissing the intellectual pretensions of his younger self.

“Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago,” says Hurt, his voice high and brittle. In one of this production’s grace notes, that recording was made in 1999, when he first played the part, and though the gap may be shorter, it lends his performance a deeper echo. It also makes Krapp seem more vulnerable in his solitude, cradling his machine and listening intently as he replays the same recollection of a girl in a punt and a love sacrificed long ago.

“All that old misery,” he seethes. “Once wasn’t enough for you.”

The title makes clear, with grave finality, that Krapp’s life will no longer be reviewed or revisited. But to see Hurt’s masterfully haunted gaze under the dying light is to understand why we keep coming back.
Until Mar 28

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