Even after more than half a century, Samuel Beckett’s extraordinary theatrical innovations retain the power to startle. That was driven home to me upon seeing the Gate Theatre (Dublin) production of the 1958 one-act Krapp’s Last Tape starring John Hurt (in, believe it or not, his New York stage debut), now at BAM in Brooklyn for two weeks only.
Having read the play in college – and that’s a good long time ago now – but never seen it, I came to this one-man work with few preconceptions of how it would be staged and only dim memories of what it was about. I discovered that this play, in this production, wields power from the very start. As the lights come up, Krapp (Mr. Hurt) sits at his desk in silence, not moving. Full minutes pass, or at least so it seems, without a motion or a sound. When finally he moves his head, it registers as a significant dramatic moment – before we have really learned anything at all.
That stillness presages what is to come. Krapp, a solitary, constipated, banana-loving man turning 69, slowly and deliberately prepares to listen to one of the annual autobiographical tapes he has made on which he records his thoughts and recounts his experiences. There’s something that he wants to hear on the specific 30-year-old tape that he digs out, and when his recorded voice finally recounts that something the play reaches its climax, a climax as dramatic as that of any modern work of theater, whether comic or tragic, melodramatic or realistic. Yet nothing’s happening on the stage except an old man embracing a machine.
In preparation, Krapp eats a banana, paces, plays with the audience a little, and goes offstage to get his tape recorder, tin boxes of tapes, and journal. He searches for a particular tape, loads it, and listens haltingly. Eventually he loads a fresh reel and begins making the “last tape” of the title.
That’s pretty much all that happens. The key to the action is in Krapp’s memories, like that of “a girl in a shabby green coat, on a railway-station platform.” Krapp has been quite the roué in his time, it seems. “That memorable night in March at the end of the jetty,” recounts his younger self, “in the howling wind, never to be forgotten, when suddenly I saw the whole thing. The vision, at last.” Whatever that vision is, present-day Krapp is deeply invested in it. And yet: “Thank God that’s all done with anyway.”
None of that means there’s some pat message in it for us. No, this is theater that lives in numerous layers.
John Hurt gives an almost literally mesmerizing performance, one that creates such intense focus that one is nearly unable to wrest one’s eyes away. It’s December, so there are lots of coughs and squawks and sniffles from the audience, and in this quiet show these merged with Krapp’s scripted coughing fits and almost heightened their effect; in any case, Hurt seemed not merely unfazed by distractions but thoroughly immersed in the bath of air and light filling the Harvey Theater, entirely one with the crowd. I had wondered how a show of such intimacy would fare in a large theater like this, and the answer is that, at least with John Hurt, it fares exquisitely well.
Perhaps it is partly my immersion in a personal theatergoing season of wordy and sometimes hyperactive drama that turned this Krapp into such a laser beam – an apt metaphor, as the only creative talent listed besides Hurt and director Michael Colgan is lighting designer James McConnell. But I can wholeheartedly recommend this show to anyone looking for something thought-provokingly different. Maybe every theatergoer needs a bit of Beckett now and then, and I don’t see how it could get much better than this.
Krapp’s Last Tape plays at the BAM Harvey Theater until Dec. 18 as part of the Next Wave Festival. That would seem a bit ironic since the play is over half a century old. Yet it carries the jolt of the crest of a new wave. Tickets and more info at the BAM website.