The late playwright and Nobel Laureate for Literature Harold Pinter is being celebrated in a one-man show directed by Academy Award nominee John Malkovich and starring British actor Julian Sands. The aptly named production, A Celebration of Harold Pinter, debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2011 and is at the Royce Gallery in San Francisco for a limited engagement continuing May 18 through May 19. While ‘Celebration’ does not pretend to be a play, it could have done with some of the dramatic arc, tension and general cadence of a theatrical production. That said, Sands' warmly rendered readings and reminiscences of a man he much adored make A Celebration of Harold Pinter a must-see event for now and future Pinter and Sands fans alike.
The general public is certainly not as familiar with Pinter’s poetry as it is with his edgy, seat-squirming, anxiety provoking plays where intimidation and abuse of power were brilliantly portrayed by the playwright. Indeed, Sands was quick to point out that Pinter, like his plays, was described as 'enigmatic, taciturn, prickly, explosive and forbidding.’ But Sands also asserted that it was through the great man’s poetry that his subjective feelings -- his romantic, political and philosophical fervor -- were just as plainly revealed. For the next 90 minutes of the show he set about proving this point, adding that it was his belief that “had he [Pinter] only revealed himself as a writer through his poetry that his literary legacy would have endured.”
Although that assertion would more than likely be contested by Pinter scholars, Sands comes to his conclusion by way of a close, personal connection with the author himself. Back in 2005, when Pinter’s advancing illness made it impossible for him to read his poetry at a benefit he had agreed to do, he asked Sands to take his place. Sands readily agreed, even after – or perhaps especially because – Pinter insisted that Sands be tutored by him in the precise phrasing, emphases and, of course, pauses (Pinter became famous for his pauses), necessary to do the works justice. Sands recounts the fact that on the night of the performance Pinter sat in the front row mouthing the words, making for a very intimidating evening for the actor.
It is just such reminiscences, laced liberally throughout the readings of Pinter’s prose and poetry that take the performance over the top. As well, the intimate setting of the Royce Gallery lends itself perfectly to the reading. Two pillars form a natural proscenium and an old table holds two dog-eared books and scattered sheets of paper, while black curtains that pool to the floor on all three sides of the stage cocoon the actor and enhance his beautifully intoned reading.
Slowly and with great love, Sands takes us through the life of Pinter, sharing a portion of his Nobel Laureate speech as well as stories and poems embracing his anti-war activism and obdurate criticism of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. The audience is also made privy to Pinter’s humor and wit at every turn. But what is perhaps the most moving is the revelation of his romantic side. It is his love story with beloved wife Antonia Fraser that will take your breath away. For her, because of her, he wrote a poem entitled “Paris.”
Sands finds the location of the poem in the book and begins to read. “The curtain white in folds/She walks two steps and turns/The curtain still, the light /Staggers in her eyes.” He pauses, his blue eyes softening as he continues. “The lamps are golden/Afternoon leans, silently/She dances in my life/The white day burns.” The audience murmurs aloud, nodding their heads in understanding, acknowledging the love that Harold felt for his Antonia.
Masterfully, Sands continued reading poem after poem, pausing, always pausing, in just the right places, much to the audience’s delight. Harold Pinter would have been proud.
A Celebration of Harold Pinter
Directed by John Malkovich
May 18 and 19
The Royce Gallery in San Francisco
Photo courtesy of Baldur Bragason