John Hurt’s lived-in and existentially stepped-on face is so familiar from films (currently “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), it’s a shock to realize this great British actor has never appeared on a New York stage. He has, however, been inhabiting “Krapp’s Last Tape,” Samuel Beckett’s searing meditation on the regrets of old age, since 1999, in a production that originated at the Gate theater under the direction of Michael Colgan and over the years has had a couple of go-rounds on the West End. At this point, Hurt not only owns the role, he appears to be living it.
Before thesp opens his mouth, his riveting stage presence keeps the house completely hushed for several long minutes of silence while his character gathers his thoughts — giving BAM auds plenty of time to contemplate what a perfect setting the artfully decayed Harvey Theater makes for this bleak theater piece.
Whatever Krapp is thinking as he leans over his huge empty desk, every worry line on his craggy face accentuated under the glare of James McConnell’s unforgiving lighting, it’s obvious the private meditations of this thought-out and talked-out writer are not happy ones.
It isn’t until this old wreck shuffles offstage to sneak a drink and to get an ancient tape recorder and stacks of audio tapes that the cause of his discontent becomes clear. It’s Krapp’s 69th birthday, an occasion that he ritualistically observes by making a tape recording of his thoughts about the year just passed and by listening to his taped thoughts on years gone by.
But this year he stalls on the tape he made when he was a cocky fellow of 39, full of ambition and triumphant in his sexual conquests. Again and again, Krapp returns to the vibrant voice of his dissolute youth, savagely contemptuous of his own hubris, but gradually succumbing to the memory of his youthful aspirations and promise — and to the despairing realization of what he has lost.
Hurt uses the lyrical instrument of his own voice to follow the old man’s emotional trajectory. He sounds like a gravel pit when Krapp rumbles his scorn for the “stupid bastard” that was his younger self. But his voice takes on a musical lilt when he picks up the cadences of his own language. (How he loves the sound of the word “spool,” or, as he rolls it around in his mouth like a piece of candy, “spooool.”)
But when it comes time for Krapp to use his last remaining tape to record his thoughts on the life he now leads, he gives up in despair, hurling his books aside and violently knocking all the tapes to the floor. “Nothing to say — not a squeak,” he admits, in what may well be the most devastating line in the whole play.
In a performance that is a tour de force from beginning to end, two things stand out about this “Krapp.” Hurt makes us realize that Krapp is, indeed, an old man with physical infirmities as enfeebling as his mental deterioration. Shoulders stooped, chest caved in, he forces us to feel the effort it takes for this aged recluse to haul himself up from his chair and shuffle over to hunt for a banana in his desk drawer, and the sheer agony it is for him to drag his bones offstage to steal a drink and cough his guts out.
The other thing that impresses about this performance is what’s missing from it — the rage. Krapp is still an angry man, but it’s a melancholy anger, tinged with self-recrimination and regret for a life not fully realized, his own unspeakably sad and empty life.