Theater Review: “Krapp’s Last Tape” at Shakespeare Theatre Company

Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece gets a definitive performance by British actor John Hurt and Ireland’s Gate Theatre.

By: Sophie Gilbert

John Hurt in the Gate Theatre’s production of “Krapp’s Last Tape.” Photograph by Anthony Woods

☆☆☆☆ stars out of four

In such a heartbreaking work of staggering genius as Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, currently playing through December 4 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, one might dare to hope that an audience savvy enough to pay money to see it might greet the performance with a sense of hushed reverence. Particularly when the show stars an actor as magnificent as John Hurt, one of the giants of British theater and film. Or if not hushed reverence, you’d at least hope they’d remember to silence their cellphones, and possibly cease talking when the lights went down.

Alas, this was not the case at press night, when the only thing that could save the show from an audience apparently riddled with coughing, shuffling, squeaking chatterboxes was Hurt’s performance, which to describe as riveting would be an understatement. This is a play in which silence is crucial—to gaze at Krapp’s unmoving face, as one does for the first few minutes of the show, is to experience the kind of magnetic pull that only theater (and, with a few exceptions, only Beckett) can create. So when said silence is punctuated by a cacophony of whispering, throat-clearing, and leg-crossing, it’s a loss almost as poignant as the action that follows.

So, not to scold, but if you go see Krapp’s Last Tape this weekend (and we entreat you to do so), please take a throat lozenge and prepare to sit still for an hour. It’ll be worth it. As Krapp, the 69-year-old icon of masochistic remembrance, Hurt is mesmerizing. As the hanging lamp above his head slowly, slowly illuminates, Krapp sits, motionless, at his desk. He’s still for so long that when he finally blinks and tilts his face an infinitesimal fraction to the side, it’s almost shocking. Crawling toward the end of his dismal existence, Krapp lives in this room, and while he talks of his life outside—of going to church and to the bar, and of visits to a “bony old ghost of a whore” named Fanny—it’s hard not to believe that his very soul would shrivel and die outside his desolate domain. “With this darkness ’round me,” he says at one point, “I feel less . . . alone.”

Hurt has a particular genius with small gestures, so while the show’s early buffoonery, directed brilliantly by Michael Colgan, is fun (Krapp explores his space with the jaunty stroll, holds a banana in his mouth like an elephant’s trunk, and then slips and falls on the discarded banana peel), Hurt’s later movements are textbook examples of how expressive an actor’s physicality can be. Today is Krapp’s 69th birthday, so he repeats a ritual he indulges in every year: replaying the tapes he recorded of himself as a young man. It’s an autobiography that disgusts him, and he gazes at the tape player with abject suspicion, throwing the recordings on the floor out of sheer frustration. And yet there’s something in them that calls to him, and when he finds the passage he wants, he cradles the audio player like a child, fingers soft, eyes closed.

This tenderness, and the poignancy with which Hurt’s eyes recall memories of a former love, is what makes Krapp’s Last Tape such an enduring work. (Grumpy old men with odd habits are a dime a dozen in Beckett works, but Krapp has a way of expressing the loneliness of the human spirit that really resonates.) Krapp, a failed writer, will always have his tapes as his masterpieces, to comfort and infuriate him, and he’ll always be able to sneeringly dismiss the arrogant, ignorant youth he once was. The self-induced torture he submits to once a year is a way of affirming and preserving his existence, shown by the way Hurt relishes pronouncing the word “spool.” To relish the reliable fragility of the spools on which he records his thoughts is to enshrine their absolute significance.

So the sight of Hurt thanking God that “that’s all done with, anyway,” even as he visibly aches at a certain memory, is a rare combination of heartbreak and absurdity that must be seen to be appreciated. As Krapp wraps up his final remembrances, the light fades, leaving only the gleam of a lingering red recording light. Fortunately, the memory of this show will last a lot longer.

Krapp’s Last Tape is at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre through December 4. Tickets ($75 to $95) are available through the company’s Web site.