John Hurt: an absolute master at portraying misfits by Michael Billington

Hurt, who has died aged 77, was a superb, if too infrequent, stage actor. In plays by Beckett, Pinter and Stoppard, he had an intuitive understanding of outsiders

I last saw John Hurt six months ago when I chaired a celebration of the work of film and TV director Jack Gold at the British Film Institute. Although looking a bit frail, John was in sparkling form. Talking of The Naked Civil Servant, which Gold directed, he revealed that the producers first intention was to cast Danny La Rue as Quentin Crisp. John also told us that, when Crisp visited the set, he nervously asked him if he felt his own performance was erring on the side of camp. My dear, you can never be TOO camp, Crisp cheerfully replied.

Hurt, who has died aged 77, will always be remembered for his astonishing range of film and TV work but he was also a considerable, if too infrequent, stage actor; and nothing he did was finer than his performance in Krapps Last Tape which was first seen in London in 1999 as part of a Samuel Beckett festival. As I wrote at the time, with his seamed, pouchy features and his shock of close-cut, iron-grey hair, John Hurt bears a striking resemblance to Beckett himself.

But the performance was infinitely more than a piece of impersonation. What Hurt caught to perfection was Krapps simultaneous desire to relive and to escape his past. At one point, Hurt put his ear close to a spool of tape as if recalling the sensation of his younger self lying in a punt with an adored girl. At the same time Hurt also caught the anguish of a near-sighted, bone-creaking old man who describes himself as drowned in dreams and burning to be gone.

John Hurt in Little Malcolm And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs

If I had to pin down Hurts special gift as an actor, it was an intuitive sympathy with outsiders: something memorably seen in his performance in The Elephant Man. But, from the beginning, his stage work revealed his capacity to play loners and misfits. His first stage appearance was at the Arts, London, in 1962 in Infanticide In the House of Fred Ginger by Fred Watson: he was one of a gang of teenagers involved, long before Edward Bonds Saved, in the gratuitous killing of a baby.

A year later, also at the Arts, Hurt played Len in the stage version of Harold Pinters novel The Dwarfs. This time he was a detached, solitary character whose imagination was haunted by the dwarfs of the title. Pinter told Hurt he wanted to get a sense of the characters aloneness though not a dark, Raskolnikov aloneness. Hurt, according to Pinter, instantly picked up the Dostoevsky reference and understood what he was after.

John Hurt as Trigorin with Natasha Richardson as Nina in The Seagull at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1985. Photograph: Donald Cooper/REX/Shutterstock/Donald Cooper/Rex/Shutterstock

Hurts talent for playing outsiders made him ideal casting for the lead in David Halliwells Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs at the Garrick in 1966. In this sprawling but mesmerising play, filmed in 1974, Hurt was an ex-art student in Huddersfield who forms a gang of four to stage a putsch against the college principal: with his wispy moustache, loping gait and cawing voice, Hurt was the very model of the bedsit fantasist eaten up by a desire for revenge.

All Hurts stage work revealed his instinctive understanding of people on societys margins. In John Osbornes Inadmissible Evidence (1965) he played a solicitors clerk who doubles as a gay client living in permanent terror of the law. In a 1972 revival of Pinters The Caretaker, he was a restlessly mobile Mick to Leonard Rossiters comically grotesque Davies. Hurt was back in Pinter in 1973, playing alongside David Warner as one of the two disturbed contract-killers in a production of The Dumb Waiter at the subterranean Soho Poly.

John Hurt with Penelope Wilton in Afterplay at the Gielgud, London, in 2002. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

As Hurts film fame grew, his stage work became rarer. He was the eccentric Dada-ist Tristan Tzara in the original 1974 production of Stoppards Travesties and a fine Trigorin in Chekhovs The Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1985. Hurts deep affinity with the Russians also yielded two late, great performances. In the 1994 West End revival of Turgenevs A Month in the Country, he was a perfect Rakitin: as the traditional, Russian superfluous man, he delivered a final speech about the folly of passion with a savage bitterness. In Brian Friels Afterplay, first at the Gate, Dublin, and then in the West End in 2002, he played Andrey from Chekhovs Three Sisters enjoying an imagined encounter in 1920s Moscow with Sonya from Uncle Vanya. He was partnered with Penelope Wilton and the two of them exactly caught Chekhovs mix of elegiac despair and unquenchable hope.

While one wished one could have seen more of Hurt on stage, he was an absolute master at portraying damaged individuals whose sensitivity made them strangers in the everyday world.

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