By far the best theatre I have seen in years is Krapp’s Last Tape, performed by John Hurt in a production created by the Gate Theatre in Dublin and brought to Washington, D.C., and the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a brief run in November and December of 2011.

John Hurt in the Gate production of Krapp’s Last Tape Photo Anthony Woods

Michael Colgan directed and James McConnell designed the light. While my guess is that an actor probably needs greater skill to play Lear or Hamlet than Krapp, John Hurt’s performance seems so great as to be inimitable. After this experience, my next trip to Dublin will certainly include the Gate Theatre, just as my trips to London usually include Donmar Warehouse productions.

Krapp’s Last Tape presents a dismal, fatalistic world view, but Beckett’s comedy, moving between clownishness and irony, provides a workable happy ending of sorts. If we cannot finally deny the grim realities about life and ourselves that we try hard to ignore most of our lives, at least we can join Beckett in getting past a narcissistic reaction. Using Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, Krapp ends in the depression stage, tipping perhaps into acceptance, but Beckett reached acceptance long ago. Beckett is Ecclesiastes with a sense of humor.

Disillusionment, where is thy sting! It’s hard to be upset about mortality, loss, waste, and personal failure when theatre is this good!

Beckett’s script is so tight and perfect as to seem impervious to tinkering. Every director doing Shakespeare seems to cut out or rearrange scenes, but who could do that with Krapp’s Last Tape? Good sense would forbid it, even if Beckett and now his estate did not strictly forbid deviation from his scripts.

The brevity of Krapp’s Last Tape is utterly appropriate to its theme, both vast and simple, about the brevity of life and our isolation in the present moment. This performance opens with a remarkably long part in which Krapp sits motionless, a minimalist, painterly coup de theatre that simultaneously creates suspenseful anticipation and embodies the suspended animation of life in which Beckett’s characters so often wait.

Beckett remains a master of theatrical effect whose gestic and temporal devices make text secondary. The timing in this production seems perfect, perhaps paradoxically since most of Krapp’s actions seem casual. One impulsive sweep of Krapp’s right hand conveys a staggering moment of recognition for Krapp, and perhaps for the audience.

The very best theatre is not comforting entertainment. It fulfills the classic role of Greek tragedy by bringing a community together to confront home truths about themselves and their society, not just about characters on stage. American theatre today too often does the opposite, pandering to our need for reassurance, our desire to feel superior to others, and our wish to splash happily in the shallow end of the emotional and political pool. In evidence, I offer Love, Loss and What I Wore.

John Gardner once asserted that although Beckett’s audiences should “cry out with tragic recognition,” they instead merely laugh, while sensing no further connection than that they, too, once felt as miserable as Beckett’s characters, but snapped out of it.

Perhaps. One cannot actually know how individuals in an audience absorb and are changed by what they see on stage, but everyone who goes to serious theatre has been profoundly moved there once in a while. We can hope that most in an audience are moved towards deeper understanding. At theatre prices today, why waste the opportunity?

To the extent that we do glimpse reality and then fall back into denial, we emulate many of Beckett’s characters. To the extent that we muster the courage to experience our own recognition scenes, we acknowledge Beckett’s greatness.

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