First Night: Hurt back to haunt us all with his best

Krapp's Last tape The Pit The Barbican London

WE DON'T see nearly enough of screen actor John Hurt on stage these days. And given that the play he is 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 the Samuel Beckett monologue Krapp's last Tape, Hurt brands himself indelibly on your mind as the eponymous old recluse - a figure who, on the "awful occasion" of his 69th birthday, sits down by his trusty, dusty Grundig machine to record his customary retrospect 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 Rebrandtesque fascination, suggesting acres of pained and mysterious hinterland, and a voice that has an extraordinarily kippered lived-in intimacy.

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

Cleverly, the play begins by making the audience feel it can condescend to the pasty-faced, 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 skilfully unhurried silent comedy from the hero's absurd addiction to bananas and meditative relish for the ridiculous squeakings of his boots. But both he and the spectators are caught off guard when, at the climax of the irritably impatient windings backwards and forwards of the tape (achieved with a meticulous emotional precision by Hurt), Krapp happens on a disarming memory of erotic rapture with a woman in a punt, an occasion which also represented a rejection of his one chance of love and happiness in favour of a lonely sterile dedication to art.

In Robin Lefevre's beautifully focussed production, the first time Krapp listens to this rending sequence, Hurt's head sinks toward the tape recorder as though it were a female breast, his arms cradled tenderly around it. It's a piercing image of a man who recognises too late what he has lost.

Not so much many happy returns as many diminished returns of the day. And at the end, there's a devastating clash between the voice of the misguided 39-year-old, bullishly confident about the consolations of creativity, and Hurt's motionless haunting 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.

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