Harold Pinter, 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, is best known for his dramatic writing (1957’s “The Birthday Party,” 1964’s “The Homecoming,” 1981’s “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”). According to English actor Julian Sands, Pinter—who challenged 20th century norms of structure and style—revealed intimate and sacred muses via poetry, too.
“He was very protective and possessive of his poetry because he knew how intimate and personal it was,” Sands notes.
One can only imagine what an honor it would be to be asked by the poet himself to read his prized writings. That’s exactly what happened to Sands in 2005.
Pinter was four years into a losing battle with esophageal cancer and unable to fulfill an engagement to present his work. Enter the stunning, charming and incredibly talented Julian Sands to be his stand-in.
If a stand-in is needed, Sands is probably the best for whom anyone can pray. Handsome looks aside, his résumé impresses: “Gothic,” “Warlock,” “Room with a View,” “Arachnophobia,” “Naked Lunch,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “Miss Marple,” “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and currently he appears as Dr. Crane on FOX’s hit TV series “Gotham.”
But Pinter has been a lifelong performer of other people’s work (frequently Samuel Beckett’s, to be more specific). He has very clear opinions on how such work should be performed, too.
“[Pinter] wasn’t thrilled he was too ill to do the recital he had committed to,” Sands tells. “My doing it on his behalf was conditional on spending some pretty intense time with him and being tutored in what he wanted. His ear for the language was quite unlike anyone else I’ve come across. It was a tremendous masterclass from Harold to me that allows me to present this material with authenticity and authority.”
For Sands the 2005 stand-in was supposed to be a “one off,” as he put it. When Pinter passed away in 2008, Sands resurrected the material as a tribute to the man and his work. The response was tremendous. While collaborating with John Malkovich, Sands began to formalize the idea of a full-on Pinter performance. The result became “Julian Sands: A Celebration of Harold Pinter.”
“Our premise very much that, in the plays for which he received the Nobel prize, Harold’s particular voice was always oblique, but in his poetry, it is there in a very unfiltered way.”
“He revealed himself,” he continues. “In interviews, too, in some of the prose and some the quotes, we are able to present a very fulfilled portrait of his life and work, and it is surprising.”
Then, in his very understated, very British way, Sands adds, “It surprises me every time I do the show. That’s why I keep going on the road; I love the material.”
Malkovich and Sands mulled over how to best present the tribute. There were questions to be answered: Would Sands actually play Pinter the way Hal Holbrook plays Mark Twain—or Jeffrey Combs plays E. A. Poe? In the end, they decided Sands would not ever assume to persona of Pinter.
“It’s me [and] the audience, sitting by the campfire telling the story of life and work of Harold Pinter,” Sands assures. “Harold has a habit of hovering around, his spirit infuses his work.”
Malkovich and Sands thought long and hard over what work they would present of Pinter’s. Would it cover poetry, prose, diary letters, confessions from colleagues, friends and family, scripts…?
“We worked on it to create a fuller richer, more expanded entertainment,” Sands explains. In fact, Sands confirms it took many shows before finding the appropriate balance.
But it all started in Edinburgh.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is one of the most famous theatre festivals in the world—an incubator of new work showcased from around the globe. It has spun off numerous fringe festivals in other parts of the world. Many (now)famous shows debut at Edinburgh, as a testing ground for audiences.
Sands and Malkovich headed to Edinburgh with their tribute to Pinter. They literally stood on a corner, armed with posters, united as a two-person street team, like excited school boys who put together their first play.
“John and I handed out flyers on the Royal Mile there,” Sands recounts. “And people came to see the show, and we had very nice response.”
It is an image that should inspire joy within every creative soul: that somehow, no matter how successful and famous someone gets (and arguably these two men are both pretty successful and famous), they still get an adrenaline rush over innovating success or enduring failure. Isn’t it a natural part of the creative drive?
Obviously, the audience at Edinburgh liked it. And, though, Pinter’s plays could indicate the show to be a dark evening in theatre, what came from it is a very funny and engaging experience.
“No one’s ever asked for their money back,” Sands observes. “This is entertainment, there is nothing dry or academic about the evening. You don’t have to know anything about Harold Pinter and his work in order to enjoy it. It’s really holding up a mirror to us all.”
Malkovich and Sands since have taken the show to New York—for what they thought would be a 10-night engagement. They ended up playing 50 shows (Ben Brantley at the New York Times adored it).
“. . . And all roads lead to Wilmington,” Sands notes.
It is more than a little overwhelming to have Julian Sands cracking jokes over the phone.