Theater archives

John Hurt Plays Krapp’s Last Tape


John Hurt’s shoes squeak—extravagantly, appallingly—protesting every step he takes around the BAM Harvey stage. There, in a single sound effect, is the catastrophe and delight of Samuel Beckett’s one-act Krapp’s Last Tape. In Hurt’s expert, unadorned rendition, directed by the Gate Theatre’s Michael Colgan, Krapp’s is a tragedy never allowed to become fully tragic, the play’s heartbreak always illuminated and undercut by the mundane, the human, the ridiculous—a treacherous banana peel, disloyal shoes.

On the occasion of his 69th birthday, Krapp sits down to record a summary of the past year and to listen to one from long ago. Seated behind a reel-to-reel recorder, illumined by a single lamp, Hurt is styled in Beckett drag—that raddled face, that gray-white quiff—rendering the autobiographical aspects of the play more than usually apparent. Krapp’s is a stunted life, seemingly devoid of pleasure. He describes Earth as a “muckball,” the waning year as “the sour cud and the iron stool.” But like Hamm, like Winnie, like Didi and Gogo, he has his small enjoyments—his drink, his bananas, his pronunciation of the word “spool,” this yearly ritual of recording.

Of course, these tapes serve less as an accretion or conviction of Krapp’s identity than to remind him how much of himself he has lost. As Krapp reads the brief description of the reel he plans to listen back to, he puzzles over the line “the black ball.” Yet on the tape he says of that same object, “I shall feel it, in my hand, until my dying day.” Similarly, when the word “viduity” sounds, Krapp has to halt the tape and bring out the dictionary. Of course, while his younger self may have had a better memory, he likely wasn’t any happier, describing the previous 12 months as “a year of profound gloom and indulgence.”

Inhabiting the wasted, “wearish” man, Hurt plunges into the role so completely that at times you might forget you’re watching an actor at all. The trembling of his hands, the weakness of his legs, those jowls—these qualities seem too lived, too alive to be merely acted. But the curtain call reminds you that acted they are. In the meantime, collapsed at his desk, Hurt disappears and only Krapp remains: a bare, forked animal whose words and recordings have all run out.