Theatre: Hello darkness, my old friend

KRAPP'S LAST TAPE BARBICAN, LONDON

WE DON'T see nearly enough of the screen actor John Hurt on stage these days. And given that the play he's now appearing in lasts only 42 minutes, some will say that we still aren't getting a vast amount of him. But such a view comes close to equating intensity of impact with mere duration. Within the austerely compressed dimensions of Samuel Beckett's monologue Krapp's Last Tape, Hurt brands himself on your mind as the eponymous old recluse - a figure who, on the "awful occasion" of his 69th birthday, sits down at his trusty, dusty Grundig machine to record his customary retrospective of the past year and to listen to excerpts from his previous recordings.

What makes Hurt a natural for this role is that he possesses a face full of wrecked, Rembrandtesque fascination, suggesting acres of complex hinterland, and a voice that has an extraordinarily compelling, kippered, lived-in quality.

One of the dramatic strengths of Beckett's play, which is recognised more clearly here, is that it concentrates maximum attention on both actorly attributes by dislocating them from each other, since for much of the time we are watching Krapp listening intently, and with varying degrees of puzzlement, amused disdain, contempt and then agonised identification, to the voice of his younger self.

Cleverly, the play begins by making the audience feel that it can condescend to the apparently clown-like protagonist, just as Krapp himself starts by thinking he can adopt a position of scoffing superiority to the 39- year-old on the tape. And Hurt creates drolly unhurried silent comedy from Krapp's absurd addiction to bananas and meditative relish for the ridiculous squeaking of his boots. The dramatic possibilities of self- interruption are brilliantly explored in this piece and Hurt, able to make a blink speak volumes, brings a meticulous emotional precision to all the irritably impatient and broodingly defensive windings backwards and forwards of the tape. But both he and the audience are caught off guard when he suddenly happens on a memory of erotic fulfilment with a woman in a punt, an occasion which also represented his rejection of his one chance of love and happiness in favour of a lonely and sterile dedication to writing.

In Robin Lefevre's beautifully focused production, the first time Krapp listens to this rending sequence Hurt virtually lays his head down on the tape-recorder as though it were a remembered female breast, his arms cradled tenderly around the machine. For a moment past and present seem to fuse. It's a piercing image of a man who recognises too late what he has lost. But then, with Krapp's sequence of birthdays it's not so much a case of many happy returns as many diminishing returns of the day. And at the end, as the light very slowly dies, there's a devastating discrepancy between the voice of the misguided 39-year-old, bullishly confident about the constellations of creativity, and Hurt's motionless, haunted face, which is a study in fathomless desolation.

There are only two more chances to see this unforgettable performance, at 2.30pm and 6.30pm on 12 September. It might just be worth queuing for returns.

Information: 0171-638 8891. A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper

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