Is it better to have had ambitions and failed at them, then never to have tried at all? Better to have made definitive choices, even if time has proven them wrongheaded?
With minutely calibrated facial expressions, John Hurt masterfully invigorates his portrayal of a lonely, cranky old writer regretfully contemplating his life, in Samuel Beckett's absurdist classic, "Krapp's Last Tape."
Thoughtfully directed by Michael Colgan, the spellbinding 55-minute production by The Gate Theatre of Dublin opened Tuesday night off-Broadway at BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn for a very limited run, having previously performed in Dublin and London.
Hurt's expression changes minutely as decrepit, 69-year-old Krapp sits in dim solitude, talking to himself while listening on an ancient reel-to-reel recorder to his annual birthday tape from 30 years ago. Although then in early middle age, he was still optimistic about his literary future, still enjoying relationships with women.
By turns lost in thought, amused, then disgusted, Hurt's Krapp irritably stops and starts the tape, at one point roaring with spiteful laughter at the misguided hubris of his younger self, in particular at his foolish decision to give up love and focus on his writing, which he sarcastically called "the opus... magnum." Hurt's lived-in, haunted face, sagging mouth and impeccable timing add a tragicomic layer to Krapp's devastating dual soliloquies, which contrast his younger enthusiasm with tonight's deep regrets. Tellingly, Krapp finds he has nothing to say for this year's birthday recording, as he hurls away his newest tape in a rage.
"What remains of all that misery?" Krapp unconvincingly mutters to himself, and "Thank God that's all done with anyway." Yet he sits close to the tape player, listening to long-forgotten details from three decades ago ("a girl in a shabby green coat," a dog with a black rubber ball). Movingly, he almost embraces the machine while listening a second time to his younger self describing an important, intimate outing with a girlfriend in a boat.
Krapp is such a sad clown that he provides his own banana peel upon which to slip, Beckett's quirky way of rendering life as one big tragic joke, still desperately appealing and necessary even if pointless.
Hurt's truly gifted performance happens to be his New York theater debut, and should not be missed.