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December 1, 2011

John Hurt shines in Beckett play presented by Shakespeare Theatre Co.

When the light slowly, oh so slowly, comes up on John Hurt, sitting at a desk on an otherwise bare stage and staring into space, the effect is riveting enough.

What happens next in the production of the Samuel Beckett classic "Krapp's Last Tape" in Washington is even more so -- nothing.

Like a variation on John Cage's infamous "4:33," Hurt barely moves a muscle for several long minutes, an eternity in theater time. The only sound is ambient -- people rustling in their seats, an occasional cough, maybe a stomach rumbling (mine did that on Wednesday's opening night; sorry, I hadn't had dinner).

The slightest change in Hurt's expression or position of his head takes on enormous significance in this tense stillness.

It is an extraordinary way of drawing an audience in, while also making them just a little uncomfortable. Ours is not an age of quiet, after all.

From that electric opening, Hurt continues to  mesmerize throughout this incisive Gate Theatre Dublin production of Beckett's 1958 play, astutely directed by Michael Colgan and expertly lit by James McConnell.

It is being presented at the ...

Lansburgh Theatre by the Shakespeare Theatre Company for a short run that ends Sunday.

(In addition to its own stellar work, the company regularly brings in important work from other troupes; memorable recent examples include National Theatre of Great Britain's "Phedre" with Helen Mirren and National Theatre Scotland's "Black Watch.")

In "Krapp's Last Tape," the sole, eponymous character marks his birthday -- his 69th -- the way he traditionally does, by tape-recording his reflections on the past year and listening to one of his previous tapes. This year he chooses the tape he made when he turned 30.

The play, lasting only about an hour, is a marvel of subtly poetic writing, psychological insight and theatrical imagination. The Nobel Prize-winning Beckett uses a deceptively simple structure to get at the dark place in all of us, the place where regrets fester, where fears of aging and being alone can turns crippling.

The wonderfully named Krapp rewinds his life, so neatly documented on reel-to-reel tapes, only to disapprove of "that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago." But he hasn't really changed much. He's still addicted to bananas and, consequently, tired of chronic constipation. He's still unfulfilled romantically, not even very successful when it comes to the commercially transacted kind.

Hurt has long been one of Britain's finest actors. (I'll always be especially grateful for his work in "I, Claudius," "The Naked Civil Servant" and "Love and Death on Long Island"). With his wonderfully weathered face and richly layered voice, Hurt burrows far into this role.

He is effective in the comic bits at the beginning -- eating a banana, pacing about, slipping on the peel (even his squeaky shoes seem to say something). And, of course, relishing the chance to say "spool," one of Krapp's oddly endearing indulgences.

The actor does particularly affecting work later on just with a couple of simple gestures -- cupping his ear as he listens to the old tape; and the pathetic way he cradles the recorder when he replays the one, blissful recollection he cannot bear to lose, the memory of a time "when there was a chance of happiness." 



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:46 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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