John Hurt in Krapp’s Last Tape


(@Richard Termine)

How It’s New York:  The short run takes place at BAM, one of New York’s beloved institutions for avang-garde and international work, and over 100 years old.  And this production is part of the Next Wave Festival.  
How It’s Irish:  Krapp’s Last Tape is by Samuel Beckett, one of Ireland’s beloved writers, and this production comes from the Gate Theatre, directed by Michael Colgan.  The Gate is known for its interpretations of Beckett.  John Hurt is a familiar figure through his many television and film roles (Caligula in “I, Claudius;” The Fool with Laurence Olivier in King Lear, Mr. Olivander in Harry Potter) but surprisingly this is actually his New York debut.

Memory and yearning are hallmarks of Irish literature.  Add in willful renunciation of the possibility of love and you’ve got Irish drama.  These elements are all  in Samuel Beckett’s melancholy Krapp’s Last Tape, elegantly produced by the Gate Theatre at BAM as part of the Next Wave Festival.

In it, a man listens to reel-to-reel “diary” tapes he’s made on previous birthdays, before making a new one.  We soon see one passage haunts him.  It’s a passage he made on his 39th birthday, in which he has just broken up with a woman, while they lie in a boat.  The peacefulness of the memory of his head on her breast will not let him go.

That’s it, really.  But it’s enough.  It’s heartbreaking and tragic, though small and inevitable.

John Hurt plays Krapp.  As always with Beckett, there is sharp humor too.  There is a pratfall involving a banana peel– the man has a weakness for bananas.  Hurt hilariously peels one, pops it in his mouth and just leaves it there hanging– like his hard drive is spinning.

(@Richard Termine(

There’s nothing onstage with him but a large desk and a hanging lamp.  At times he toys with moving into the darkness beyond the spotlight, a little theatrical joke.  He’s certainly alone– the way he shuffles on lets you know at once there’s nobody in another room somewhere, and the way he draws out the word “spoooooool”, when he chooses Box 3, Spool 5, suggests he hasn’t heard much of his own voice lately.

 Hurt made the tape for the 39th birthday over 10 years ago for another production, and it is powerful to hear his  clearly younger voice.  But Krapp’s listen isn’t  a happy stroll down memory lane.  He resents his younger pompousness, and has to look up a word he used (the word is “viduity,” or widowhood).  He shakes his head and talks  to himself.

And he begins to launch into a new tape.  But he has little to say, apart from criticizing himself “the bastard I was 30 years ago,” and some  mordant remarks about having sex for hire and growing older.  We gather he had a revelation those 30 years ago to do with art and his purpose, and listening to that enrages him.  He has sudden angry outburts and throws the tape away– hence the title.

We lay there without moving.  But under us all moved, and moved us , gently, up and down, and from side to side.  

That is the phrase that draws him in.  Then the next one is almost an epitaph:

Past midnight.  Never knew such silence.  The earth might be uninhabited.

Hurt has an amazing capacity for stasis.  His face goes blank and his gaze turns inward.  Colgan’s direction is light, allowing for variety in shades of tone but not straining the physicality.   It is a touching, precise performance.

I found myself thinking of Genesis watching Krapp torture himself with that memory.  After the world was created, “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.”  Krapp’s loneliness is terrible to watch.   That it’s a life chosen by his younger self does not make make his sentence easier to bear– for him or for us.    

At the BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton St., 718-636-4100, or online.

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.