Preview: A Celebration of Harold Pinter

Actor Julian Sands tells Andy Murray why he’s proud to deliver the poetry of Harold Pinter

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Edinburgh Festival-goers are accustomed to being showered in the street with flyers pressed into their hands by eager, hopeful performers. This year, though, two unlikely faces were out distributing to the masses: actors John Malkovich and Julian Sands. Sadly the third partner in their current collaboration can’t be so hands on. Malkovich is currently directing Sands in a one-man performance of the poetry and prose of the late Harold Pinter.

Pinter is one of the key dramatists of the 20th century but he isn’t often recognised as a poet. If Sands has his way, though, this show, now on a national tour, might help to change that.

“Harold had such a calling to dramatic work and such success with it, and in general I think people like their playwrights to be playwrights and their poets to be poets,” suggests Sands. “But his poetry is worth absolute consideration. If Harold had really revealed himself as a poet in his lifetime, I believe that the impact on his literary legacy would have been colossal and enduring.”

As Sands sees it, the writings in the show unveil the real Pinter.

“I think it would be hard to form a view of who the man was from watching his plays alone, because they’re so oblique. But in his poetry and prose he reveals himself – his own heart, his own mind. It’s deeply personal. And the astonishing thing about this material is how much range and depth there is in there. I mean, there’s some of the most profound and provocative poetry about war, but also some of the most deeply touching and transcending love poems that I’ve ever come across in the English language.”

Back in 2005, Sands attended a lunch along with Pinter and they fell into a long, animated discussion about politics. Soon afterwards, an increasingly ill Pinter asked Sands if he’d take his place at a public reading of his work. “It came out of that lunch conversation. It was a sort of spontaneous vote of confidence,I suppose.”

To prepare him for the reading, Pinter coached Sands very precisely on his delivery. “It was vital that we had those sessions. There were notions that I had about the language which were completely against his intentions and he was very quick to put me on the right track. That’s why I feel I can go out there on that stage and look people in the eye and say what I say with a degree of authority. There were people who knew him far better than I did and people who know his work far better than I do, but what I do know is what he told me. So that’s why I can give people a direct experience – from the horse’s mouth, as it were.”

When Pinter died in December 2008, Sands re-staged the performance as a personal tribute, interlaced with extracts from obituaries and his own memories of the man. This drew the admiration of Malkovich, and together the pair have developed the show into its present form.

Sands will be familiar to many from his career in Hollywood (Warlock, Arachnophobia, Leaving Las Vegas), and is well regarded for his theatre work. This is his first one-man show, but he’s adamant that he doesn’t feel remotely anxious about it.

“There isn’t any fourth-wall barrier. I will be looking you in the eyes. Actually I find it’s been an incredible liberation. It’s a very, very pure theatrical experience. I mean, if you think back, in the ancient world, theatre was Homer reciting The Iliad and The Odyssey in a pool of moonlight. That’s what I try and create with this material. It’s me in a pool of moonlight and Harold is Odysseus.”

A Celebration of Harold Pinter, 20 September, Royal Exchange, Manchester

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