Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Krapp’s Last Tape" - A harsh, yet tender look at growing old

Review by Judd Hollander
Photo by Richard Termine

Absurdly simple, yet remarkably complex, Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape shows the preciousness and fleetness of life. Starring John Hurt in a breathtaking performance as the title character, this one-person work is presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the BAM 2012 Next Wave Festival.

On the day he turns 69, Krapp, an aging and used-up man, sits down at his desk and prepares to make his annual birthday tape to himself. Before he does so, he first takes part in another tradition, listening to one of his previously recorded tapes.  In this case he chooses one from his 39th birthday - “box three, spool 5” to be precise - though he stops more than once to puzzle over the contents of that spool, as reflected in his notes to himself in a large ledger.

Listening to the tape of his 39 year-old self, one is struck by the cynicism in Krapp’s voice, one which looks forward to the future while seemingly glad to put his past in the rearview mirror, his comments a mixture of half-hearted nostalgia and a hearty dose of “good riddance.” The younger Krapp also recounts his own listening to a tape he made more than a decade earlier (around age 27-29), chiding himself for being so naive. This is an attitude Krapp continues to project in the present.

Beckett takes special care to continually point out just how transient certain moments and memories can be. While Krapp took great pains 30 years earlier to recount a “memorable equinox” in his notes, he now has no recollection of that event. He also has no clue as to the meaning of the word “viduity,” a term which the once-determined, now frustrated writer apparently knew quite well. The tape also contains frequent references to romantic encounters, the dangers of drink and his habit of spending his birthday alone, a practice Krapp seems to have enjoyed back then and has seemingly continued to the present day. Indeed, there’s a bitter circular irony to the man Krapp once and the person he now is, a harsh truth he tries hard not to allow himself to understand.

Hurt’s performance is so striking that when Krapp first appears, one can literally smell the decay on his person, projecting a lonely old man, one with no hope or prospects for the future. Hurt makes Krapp both an object of pity and sympathy - so much so that one can’t help but wonder who this man was and how he could have let his life turn out the way it did. The play’s final moments, when Krapp begins to make the latest tape in the series, are sad, combative, angry and eventually, silently shattering.

Throughout the piece, Hurt and director Michael Cogan take pains to lighten up the work a bit in order to leaven out the play’s overall bleakness - Krapp’s apparently unhealthy addiction to bananas, his somewhat exaggerated reactions to things he once said, and his relationship to the lighted playing area of the stage, its sharp endings seemingly marking a boundary for the path Krapp is able to trod. Beckett's script is only 12 pages long, but director Cogan stretches Krapp's tale with prolonged and pregnant pauses which serve to highlight the poignancy of Krapp’s situation.

The set (not credited in the program) works well here, with the small amount of playing space a sharp contrast to the much larger darkened areas - a kind of metaphor for how Krapp’s life has turned out. James McConnell’s lighting design is effective in its simplicity, like the play itself, showing Krapp for whom he truly is.

Krapp’s Last Tape offers a heartbreaking look at a man going nowhere, even though he doesn’t always realize it, with a brava turn by Hurt that makes the person portrayed come alive, both in the here and now and in the long ago.

Krapp's Last Tape

Featuring John Hurt (Krapp)

Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Michael Colgan
Lighting Design by James McConnell

Presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
2011 Next Wave Festival
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton Street
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or
Closes: December 18, 2011

Running Time: 65 Minutes

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