Krapp's Last Tape: Theater Review

Krapp's Last Tape Production Photo - H 2012

Krapp's Last Tape Production Photo - H 2012

As sweet as it is bleak, this unimpeachable imported production sets a gold standard for this now classic play.

Oscar-nominated John Hurt stars in Samuel Beckett's elegiac, sentimental piece.

An old man, alone at a desk in a spotlight, rummages about for an old spool of audio he recorded 30 years earlier, ruminates upon his younger self, and commits his present perspective to yet another reel. Once a defining force of postwar modernism in the novel and theater, Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett has now had his own voice tempered by the passage of more than a half century since this play first premiered, and his inspired innovations have assumed more classical dimensions. Though the technology has grown commensurately quaint, his vision remains fundamentally fierce.

Essentially an elegiac, sentimental piece, one we cannot help but regard with some of the same bemused distance which Krapp (John Hurt) applies to his own earlier incarnation, Krapp’s Last Tape suggests only a wisp of the vaudeville of his earlier, more popular Waiting for Godot. Following an opening protracted silence transgressed only by the ambient noise of the air-conditioning, Hurt is unafraid to lead with pointed clowning, milking sight gags about light and dark, eating bananas and fishing through the detritus of dusty tomes and accumulated boxes. Beckett signals us fairly soon that the core joke is that Krapp has had a lifetime concern about constipation.

Hurt’s readings on the recordings from when Krapp was 39 remind of the mellifluous cadences of Ronald Colman, and the lyricism marks him as remarkably un-jaded for one even then already approaching middle age. By contrast, his contemporary cackle mocks his ingenuousness, although his lined face conveys ample doses of rue. The recluse Krapp had ambitions in art and in love and has resoundingly failed. It’s a performance rigorously dedicated to externals, allowing the concept and the text to suggest an inner life not otherwise explicitly expressed. Hurt has been playing this part since 1999, perhaps longer than James O’Neill assayed the Count of Monte Cristo, yet he remains fresh enough that one can believe that there remains some touch of improvisation each evening. Burdened with a foot cast during this run, he incorporates the handicap deftly, wielding his cane as a tool to flourish.

There has been no shortage of mountings of this play, not even in Los Angeles, and still less a moratorium on ceaseless commentary on Beckett. There are many ways to do him badly, to render him musty or austere. It’s bracing and rejuvenating to encounter Krapp in a version that respects its original beats and diction so faithfully, quite the best I have witnessed, and for good measure, in the largest house yet.

Venue: Kirk Douglas Theatre (through Nov. 4)
Cast: John Hurt
Director: Michael Colgan
Writer: Samuel Beckett
Lighting Designer: James McConnell