He does so to great effect. Director Colgan gives Krapp a full fifteen minutes before he opens his mouth. And that fifteen minutes, to my mind, is worth the price of the ticket. (You’ll have to see it; I can’t really explain why). Then, the real star of the night becomes, as it should, the 1950’s tape recorder.
Krapp is celebrating his 69th birthday with a few drinks. Once he works himself up to the party itself – fueled by the fire of two bananas – he disappears behind the scrim. He comes back, lugging a stack of nine tapes, and then, a vintage reel-to-reel tape recorder.
When Beckett wrote the one act Krapp’s Last Tape in 1958, the tape recorders were state of the art. Now it’s a period piece. But Krapp himself is, by no stretch of the imagination, state of the art. In a play written by Beckett at 49, Krapp has been reduced, at 69, to listening to tapes of himself at 39, remembering what he had been at 29. And now he’s being played by an actor who’s older than all of them.
Hurt isn’t there to act out those moments, or even relive them. He’s there to make us increasingly aware of the gaps between the character’s memories and his real life: gaps that, as he grows older, form the virtual architecture of his own life. That’s a quickly widening space, on a stage where the darkness becomes increasingly pronounced.
What we listen to in isolated flashes from that earlier tape made at 39, are memories of a vaguely defined love affair. Then in terms that clearly disgust the 69 year old Krapp, the 39 year old, offers a few grandly described artistic epiphanies. Now, alone with his thoughts, three decades later, he’s wondering what the hell he was thinking back when he was wondering what the hell he was thinking ten years before that.
That’s dangerous territory for any actor, and I’ve seen this play turned into a sludgefest of vaguely defined existential angst. Director Michael Colgan doesn’t let that happen. Hurt brings us slowly into a field – the carefully defined rectangle of light on stage – where instead of waiting for the next line, we watch as Krapp feels out the edges of his own life. He grows increasingly desperate. But with unhurried calm, and without apparent effort, Hurt and Colgan seize control of the time zone itself.
It’s up to them to remind us that, even as the darkness moves in, literally, there’s a twinkle of life in Krapp still. Those occasional flickers are what ties this production. He may slip on his own banana peel, or suddenly rush to the dictionary in search of a definition for a word that he may have used in his literary heyday. That sudden deviant charge of curiosity has a magical effect. And Hurt has the ability to turn from a 69 year old cynic into an almost insatiably curious explorer. Suddenly, a new dimension appears in this layer of characters: Krapp as a young child.
The play ends, as Beckett intended, with a red light glowing from the recorder and a completely new idea of what ‘fire’ actually is. But I thought I’d been introduced to a new time zone: that dramatic space where we try to figure out how to respond to our own memories. Hurt, beautifully, brings that on stage. He didn’t bring the crowd to a standing ovation that night, but then, he didn’t try to. But for a moment, I thought he got a room full of people from this town of talkers to listen.
Actually, no, maybe that’s asking the impossible. The woman in front of me couldn’t resist, between Krapp’s bananas, taking a sneak peak at her smart phone. I couldn’t help wondering what Beckett would come up with had he been born fifty years later: Krapp’s Last Tweet? That’s an honest question. Do we really give ourselves time to wonder what we were thinking ten years ago any more?
Reviewed by John Barry