Technology is messing with John Hurt’s head. His rental cellphone is ringing like mad, but when he tries to answer it, no one’s there.
“Four new messages!” the British actor exclaims, scrutinizing the phone’s display screen as if it were written in Sanskrit. “What’s going on?”
Krapp would sympathize. In “Krapp’s Last Tape,” Samuel Beckett’s quietly devastating one-act memory play, an isolated old man, a writer named Krapp, squares off with another confounding technological contraption: a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Listening to a recording of himself made 30 years earlier, Krapp stares into the abyss of his own life and recalls a time when happiness was fleetingly in his grasp. The confrontation raises existential questions that are poignant, bleakly funny, painful and ultimately unanswerable.
Hurt’s portrayal of Beckett’s crusty, self-haunted protagonist, which he first performed at Dublin’s Gate Theatre and subsequently took to London and New York, arrived last week at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, where it’s playing through Nov. 4. In his review of the Kirk Douglas production, Times theater critic Charles McNulty described the show as a “magnificent rendition” of Beckett’s masterwork that is “not to be missed.”
Over lunch last week at a seaside-terrace restaurant in Marina del Rey, a slightly jet-lagged Hurt spoke fondly of the curmudgeonly character who has been his traveling companion since 1999.
Although best-known as a prolific film actor in starring roles (“The Elephant Man,” “The Naked Civil Servant”) and scores of memorable character parts (“Alien,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), Hurt’s long association with Krapp has stamped his face on the role. At 72, Hurt is now three years beyond Krapp’s stated age of 69. Several critics have noted the resemblance between the actor, with his wedge of bristly gray hair and furrowed brow, and the author of “Waiting for Godot.”
“I was too young to start with and I’m too old now,” Hurt says with a laugh. “But then what is 69? Sixty-nine when Sam Beckett wrote it was quite a lot older than 69 is now.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he continues. “It depends what state you’re in, doesn’t it? Krapp’s not in the best state, as his name would suggest. It’s just somebody who’s got to that period in their life which is when you become accountable, or not accountable, or whatever.”
Michael Colgan, the play’s director and the Gate’s artistic director since 1983, says that “Krapp” may be Beckett’s most autobiographical work. Yet Hurt says that, in contrast to the playwright’s caricatured image as a despairing misanthrope, the real Beckett was “an enormously warm man,” a connoisseur of cricket and fine whiskey, who wrote plays that are both “truly funny” and “gloriously gloomy.”
Not coincidentally, Hurt has been approached about playing Beckett in a feature film. Although he says it would be premature to discuss details, he’s energized by the idea of portraying a man who, he says, “wasn’t what everybody thought he was.” Meanwhile, Hurt has been keeping busy as the voice of the Dragon on the “Merlin” TV series, and in upcoming feature film roles in Joon-ho Bong’s “Snowpiercer” and the Jim Jarmusch vampire-historical movie “Only Lovers Left Alive,” with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton.
Reduced to its skeletal outline, “Krapp’s Last Tape” is deceptively simple. Sitting at an illuminated table on an otherwise darkened stage, Krapp plays back an old tape (“box 3, spool 5"), reacts, pauses, listens some more, reacts some more, pauses some more.
Eventually, Krapp begins to make a new recording, during which he savagely reproaches his younger, loftier self. But he finds himself drawn back to the 30-year-old tape as the evening resonantly ends.
“The construction of the piece, its essence, is a man who attempts really to live without love, to put his genius first — the way he saw himself when he was younger, which absolutely makes him sick now he’s older,” Hurt says.
Apart from a sort of slapstick prologue involving a banana, that’s it: The audience is out the door in a mere 55 minutes. But like most Beckett plays, “Krapp” can stick with you for days, months, even as you lie on your deathbed. The challenge for an actor, Hurt says, is that “you can’t let the audience off the hook for a second because it’s very concentrated. Otherwise you’re lost.”
Colgan says that, like many of Beckett’s plays, “Krapp” makes extraordinary demands on a performer. “He hasn’t been kind to actors in putting them in urns and burying them to their neck in sand,” Colgan says, referring to characters in the author’s “Endgame” and “Happy Days.”
“Krapp,” Colgan says, is “one of very, very few plays where the cliche is true that you wouldn’t want to add a word or subtract a word.” Hurt’s achievement, Colgan emphasizes, is to make each of those words count.
“You don’t really direct John Hurt” or actors of his caliber, Colgan says. “You really try to become their third eye. They teach you, in a way, how to direct them.”
Hurt, who’d never performed Beckett before doing “Krapp,” appreciates the play’s slow-burning concision, which he says opens up lots of choices for an actor. “It’s such a rich little piece, and I do sometimes wonder why is this being so successful? I don’t know what I do that’s particularly special.”
Notwithstanding Beckett’s reputation for bottomless profundity, Hurt cautions against searching for “massive significance” in every nook and cranny of “Krapp,” which was first performed in 1958 as a curtain-raiser to “Endgame” at London’s Royal Court Theatre, starring Patrick Magee.
“Let’s not try to explain Beckett, in a sense, because so much of it’s not explained,” he says. “I call it ‘an interrupted pause,’ in a sense, the play. And it feeds you something and it asks you to think something.”
Hurt is facing one additional new challenge in portraying Krapp this fall. He recently suffered a 14-foot tumble that wreaked havoc on his right ankle. He’s since been limping around in a soft cast, with the aid of a cane.
But Hurt has found a way to incorporate this impairment into his portrayal of a character who’s pretty banged-up and disheveled to begin with. As an actor, he says, he savors the challenge of the unexpected.
“I love having things come out of the blue,” he says. “I never had ambitions to do, for instance, ‘Hamlet’ or things that most actors I think do have. I love it if I have to say, ‘Wonder why they asked me?’ And then thinking, ‘OK, let’s see if we can answer that question.’”