Julian Sands: A Celebration of Harold Pinter

Julian Sands in his Harold Pinter tribute
Julian Sands in his Harold Pinter tribute
Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

The setup:

Harold Pinter is best known as an English playwright (The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming, No Man's Land, Betrayal et al.), but he was also an actor, screenwriter, theater director, and poet. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005.

He had formed a friendship with the actor Julian Sands, and when illness made Pinter unable to perform a reading of his poetry, Pinter had asked Sands to fill in. Pinter was famed for the pauses in his plays, and these were equally relevant in his poetry, so he trained Sands assiduously. Pinter died in December, 2008, and Sands debuted this production at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011, and has been performing it in a variety of cities since then. It is directed by John Malkovich, perhaps an unexpected choice for a poetry reading, as Malkovich first came to fame as an actor portraying violent characters.

The execution:

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The stage is bare except for the actor, a small table with sheaves of paper, and a water glass. Sands is tall, handsome, blond, looks younger than his mid-50's years, appears refined and eminently likable. The evening is a hybrid, some poetry, some reminiscences from Sands, some snatches of Pinter's bio, but still giving us a brush with greatness, though once-removed, filtered by Sands. We come to meet poet Pinter, as fiercely dedicated to the truth, and its immediacy, as is playwright Pinter.

Sands is a gifted actor, but not one with an extraordinary range, and his natural refinement impedes belief when a Pinter poem tells its audience to "f--k off". The volume may kick in, but the viciousness is lacking. And the line "there is the possibility of moonlight in the room" strikes me as soft, romantic, expectant with hope, while it is here read as a simple declarative sentence.

This reading may be the interpretation of director Malkovich, one of the founders of the acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, where the acting has sometimes been described as "bang-the-wall" rather than nuanced or subtle.

Pinter's plays, while deadly serious, are also often hilarious, and his sense of humor is in full display here, as he has a gift for the twist and the unexpected. Sands is drolly perfect in illustrating what a "pause" can mean to Pinter, as he pantomimes taking out a cigarette, lighting it, smoking it, dropping ash on his trousers, taking another puff, and then grinding the cigarette under his heel.

Pinter was an iconoclast who saw things clearly, with a gifted vision for the truth lurking within a casual phrase, and the lie masquerading as a banality. Though Pinter later regretted having said it, he once described his work as seeing "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet". His plays have also been categorized as "the comedy of menace".

Categories aside, the evening makes clear that we are in the presence of a strong intellect, a high sense of morality, and a capacity for going for the jugular that is admirable.

The evening is a one-night event in Houston, though the performance had an extended run at the Abbey Theater in Dublin. The event took place at the Wortham Theater at the University of Houston at 7:30 p.m. on October 27, and was made possible by a gift from Nina and Michael Zilkha.

The verdict:

An unusual event combines fine acting, showmanship, and the lesser-known poetry of Harold Pinter in a refreshing and original tribute that captures the greatness of Pinter's soul. This was a memorable performance worthy of the title "event".


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