If there’s a bleak truth to be unearthed about the human condition, you can be sure Samuel Beckett peerlessly expressed it. His 1958 tiny masterpiece “Krapp’s Last Tape” is about the impermanence of memory — about how our recollections desert us just when they’re most needed to soften the blow of reviewing life’s disappointments. The emphasis on humor in Michael Colgan’s visiting Gate Theater Dublin production, executed by the brilliantly talented John Hurt, makes it easier to swallow Beckett’s bitter pill.
Some productions have brought meticulous detail to the digs of the elderly, fussy academic Krapp, but Colgan opts for black-and-white minimalism: just a desk with two drawers facing us, plus a chair and stark overhead light. It’s a perfect police interrogation setting where Krapp is both cop and accused, grilling himself by listening to, and commenting on, reel-to-reel tapes he made, with remarkable foresight, over the course of his 69 years.
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He’s also working from a ledger or journal of sorts, in which a pair of cryptic notations set the play’s light-to-dark tone early on. “Memorable equinox,” he reads aloud from 30 years ago, and we laugh as Hurt conveys an utter inability to recall what was so memorable. But at the very next entry, “Farewell to love,” his face falls and we come to a dead stop. Clearly this memory lane won’t be a smoothly paved freeway.
For the first third of the hourlong event, Hurt executes a delirious, droll pantomime, silent except for a pair of absurdly squeaking shoes (perhaps an homage to Beckett’s fellow comic crank Jacques Tati). Included are some pranks with bananas and their peels, but the routine itself is the banana peel because it keeps us from seeing what we’re about to slip on.
The tape made back in Krapp’s 39th year recounts multiple failures as a son, writer, lover and citizen, but everything is frustratingly fragmentary. Things he averred were “never to be forgotten” are a blur, while things he should’ve or could’ve done mount up. With Hurt made to appear a dead ringer for Beckett — wildly thatched white hair, deep set eyes and infinitely cracked visage — the autobiographical elements enhance our empathy as this man painfully encounters his faded, imperfect past.
Frustration dangerously mounts as the old words fall short of bringing Krapp whatever he expects in the way of closure, clarity or comfort. Efforts to record a new memoir in the here-and-now dribble away.
It all comes to a head in a bygone erotic encounter in a drifting boat, where he recalls muttering “Let me in,” surely the most achingly beautiful triple entendre in the English language. At once it evokes his desire to fall into the woman’s eyes, possess her sexually and make full, genuine contact with another human being, at least once in a lifetime.
Having put us through the wringer, Hurt/Beckett leaves us hanging. Do we take him at his word that with “the fire in me now” he wouldn’t want the old times back? Or does the spool silently running out signal his impending demise? As with any dramatic poem of genius, “Krapp’s Last Tape” becomes the spectator’s own Rorschach test, challenging us to see our own lives reflected in it and decide where we’ll go from here.