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The word with which Samuel Beckett once referred to the title character of his 1958 one-act Krapp’s Last Tape—-wizened—-does not begin to describe the spectacular parade of fissures and topographic formations that is the face of the actor John Hurt. He’s always looked like his name is a caption: John, hurt.
At 71, he’s come to resemble the aged Beckett, who died in 1989, more than a little. Hurt’s played all kinds of roles in his 50-year film and TV career, but we remember him best for his most pitiable characters: Winston Smith in the 1984 version of 1984. John Merrick, The Elephant Man. And of course, Kane, the space trucker who seemed like a pretty unlucky bastard even before he got face-raped by a lobster and gave literally gut-busting birth to Ridley Scott’s Alien.
Anyway, Hurt is at Shakespeare Theatre Company this week, reprising his masterly take on Krapp in a production originated by Dublin’s Gate Theatre. The piece finds a man spending “the awful occasion” of his 69th birthday in his customary fashion, listening to an audio diary made on a prior birthday and then recording a new one to document the year just past. He musters his aching body to dig out his boxes of reels, finally locating with the aid of a logbook a recording from 30 years earlier. Initially, his reaction to the optimism of his younger self is comical, though Hurt’s hoarse cackle as he listens is quite the opposite.
The horizon darkens as it becomes clear how much of himself has evaporated in the interim. When Krapp hears his younger self use the word “viduity” and must seek its meaning in a dictionary, it’s a little marker of decline. But when he’s stymied by his own reference to the “memorable equinox” that inspired his failed writing career, it’s something darker. The ending points the way toward Happy Days, a longer piece Beckett would debut three years later that seems to share much of Krapp’s DNA.
This is all brutal, bruising stuff. If it were any more austere it would be unwatchable. Even at a running time of just under an hour, it’s a tough pill to swallow. The pleasure in this production comes from its perfect symmetry of actor and material. It Hurts so good.
The play continues through Sunday. $37-$105. Photo by Anthony Woods.