The Gate Theatre Company's production of one of Samuel Beckett's most accessible plays made a brief appearance at last autumn's festival of the old misanthrope's plays.
It's now making a welcome return for a short run giving John Hurt the chance to reprise his role as the old man Krapp, looking back on his long and unhappy life and replaying the tape he made on his 39th birthday, that tape that contains his reactions to the death of his mother.
The play opens with a single spotlight on Hurt (made up to look like Beckett, as if to stress the loosely autobiographical nature of the work) searching for the tape that contains the relevant scene.
Unlike Proust, that other evoker of memory currently enjoying his season in the sun, Beckett concentrates on the banal. His mother's death is reduced to a series of observations of trivialities; the colour of the blinds, a small dog, a rubber ball and, at the same time, there's real poetry in the younger Krapp's observations. Undoubtedly, we get a sense of the poetry through the richness of Hurt's reading. There aren't many actors with his rich and sonorous voice and the sounds emanating from the tape contrast strongly with those emerging from this grunting, crabbed, constipated old man.
Robin Lefèvre's direction beautifully paces the play and Giles Cadle's and Jim McConnell's minimalist design and lighting respectively, leave the stage uncluttered for Hurt's tour de force.
Hurt has made a habit of playing people on the outskirts of society, but this could almost be the part he has been waiting to play all his life. He relishes every syllable of the role and when, in his last outburst he says, 'Perhaps my best years are gone, when I had a chance of happiness. But I wouldn't want them back, not with the fire in me now,' one is almost willing to believe him. This is a seriously good performance.
Krapp's Last Tape is one of the major plays of the 20th century, and it's great to see such a masterpiece in the West End. Catch it while you can.