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.
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.