KRAPP'S LAST TAPE
New Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2
Opened 27 January, 2000

The late 1990s were a good time for Krapps in the theatres of these islands. In Glasgow, Giles Havergal relentlessly wrung out every drop of pathos and pain from his agonised, unobtrusively triste portrayal of Beckett's protagonist. Then came Edward Petherbridge's slightly distracted Krapp (not least on the performance I saw, at which his co-star, an elderly tape recorder, decided instead to impersonate Winnie's parasol in the same author's Happy Days, and began to emit smoke from its innards), less a man raked with the bitterness of failure than one who has simply run out of steam and cannot tolerate the preciousness of his lyrical younger self on the tape recordings.

By common acclamation, though, the laurel goes to John Hurt. His wonderful performance, in Robin Lefèvre's Gate Theatre production, was first seen in London last September as part of the Barbican's Beckett Festival, and has now returned for a seven-week run in the West End. With his grey, spiky-cropped hair and furrowed face, Hurt is almost the spitting image of Beckett himself; even his ears seem to partake of Beckettishness by sticking themselves out further than usual. He is discovered sitting at his bare desk beneath a single electric light, staring pensively, grimly, perhaps (we think, mistakenly, at this early point) a little remorsefully into the middle distance. It is more than a minute before he so much as moves.

At 55 minutes, this is a long version of the play, but not a slow one. The early laughs, as he plays with the squeak in his boots and slips on a banana skin, are minor key; there are no slapstick noises off when he retires briefly to his "cubby hole"... in fact, no ostentatious sense of theatricality at all (although he does eventually throw the banana skin off the front of the stage rather than in the more discreet direction specified by the script). Hurt commands through his iron stillness: he pauses, bent over, short of breath, for a moment after plugging in the recorder, then, when sifting through his ledger of tapes' contents, reads "Farewell to...", turns the page, peers, reads, and only after a few seconds of not at all wistful consideration mutters, "...love."

The contrast with this rigid self-discipline makes for a heightened jolt when it momentarily breaks down. We can see that Hurt's Krapp is physically pained by his thirty-years-younger self's taped account of his major epiphany the "memorable equinox" and pained perhaps by the element of delusion, but more directly by the fact that in those days he could feel any kind of passion at all... but there is no nostalgia in his agony. Our shock, then, is so much greater when he finds himself goaded into actual movement: spitting "Let that go!" at the tape recorder in disgusted rage, he almost bounds to his feet and takes a couple of paces away from the table, his back to both the machine and the audience.

There is no tristesse here to let us off lightly, just an undimmed, undimmable self-loathing, hydrochloric in its corrosive strength. This Krapp manages to find particularly deep irritation even in the inevitability of the sum of "One pound six and something, eight I have little doubt." (For younger readers, 6/8 was exactly one-third of a pre-decimal pound.) He may almost rest his head on the tape machine as it recounts his own past, but this is less in an actual, tender recollection of times and feelings he has since lost than a brief, vain, utterly void attempt to imagine himself the person who lived through the events described. In the final sequence, when replaying the closing moments of the 39-year-old Krapp's tape, he gives the lie to the venom which has preceded it but refrains from putting anything in its place, his face utterly immobile, his eyes not even glistening immoderately, powerfully personifying the core-deep, fundamental absence of what his younger self callowly believed was "the fire in me now". The last shock of all is when, at the curtain call, this immemorially emotionless face breaks into a smile.

Written for Irish Theatre magazine.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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