Two’s a party, they say, or maybe it’s three — but when the blond-maned, ever-dashing actor Julian Sands takes the stage of Monmouth University’s Pollak Theatre on Friday, October 18, he’ll stand alone in a performance of his one man touring show A Celebration of Harold Pinter. That said, he’ll stand there fully reinforced by the talents of the late playwright — and of his director, none other than John Malkovich.
Pinter you might know from his Oscar-nominated screenwriting — crackling, often brilliant adaptations of other peoples’ novels, plays and unfinished manuscripts that resulted in films like The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Quiller Memorandum, The Last Tycoon, and those British new-wave classics The Servant, Accident and The Pumpkin Eater. You might even have spotted him on screen in Mansfield Park or The Tailor of Panama, but Harold Pinter’s legacy rests on the creaking boards of the stage — via such dramatic fare as The Caretaker, the brutally absurdist Birthday Party and the chronologically cockeyed, emotionally abrasive Betrayal (all three of which became powerhouse pictures in themselves). The 2005 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was a man in constant motion; acting in and directing scores of plays, penning editorials and generally becoming the antithesis of the reclusive writerly type.
Malkovich of course is the founding member of Chicago’s celebrated Steppenwolf Theatre Company whose own career on the stage (Death of a Salesman, Burn This, True West) and screen (Dangerous Liaisons, Empire of the Sun, and, natch, Being John Malkovich) include Academy Award nominated turns in Places in the Heart and In the Line of Fire.
And Sands? He’s the actor who made his first big impression in the 1985 Merchant-Ivory production A Room With a View, and over the course of a 25 year film and TV career has appeared as everyone from Percy Bysshe Shelley and Franz Liszt, to the Phantom of the Opera and Superman’s father — in highbrow and lowbrow projects that have ranged from the Oscar-lauded Leaving Las Vegas and The Killing Fields, to Warlock and the unforgettable Boxing Helena. He’ll be bringing the Pinter program to New Jersey for the first time, for an 8 pm presentation that arrives on the heels of the 83rd birthday of Pinter (1930-2008) — and that’s described as “an evening of Homeric theater with an extraordinary actor, great words, and an audience.”
First seen at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and nominated for a 2013 Drama Desk Award, this is a Celebration that focuses upon a relatively little known aspect of the Nobel laureate’s work — his poems and “political prose,” presented here in a setting that’s augmented by the first-person reflections of the performer who was hand-picked by Pinter for this project.
Sands was recruited by Pinter in 2005 to present a special program of the playwright’s poetry in London — and in the process was granted a close-up perspective on the outlook, work and personality of a literary lion who’s still a bit of a cipher to American audiences. Julian Sands spoke to your upperWETside correspondent from his home in Southern California. Here’s the gist of it…
upperWETside: Thanks so much for calling in! I can tell you that there a good many people around these parts who are very excited over the prospect of breathing the same air in the same room as Julian Sands. Is this date at Monmouth University part of a string of college engagements, or part of a larger jaunt around the east coast?
JULIAN SANDS: No, I’m just coming east for the one evening at the University; they were familiar with the show and wanted to set it up there. The following weekend I’ll be in Santa Monica, and then in San Francisco. I have performed it in New York, where it was received very well; we had people who made repeat trips to see it.
Pinter, for all that he’s celebrated back in the UK and among literary circles, is still far from a household name here in the States. Was at least part of the idea of this show that it serve as an introduction of sorts, or is there an assumption of a certain amount of familiarity with him and his work?
The evening is an entertainment, in which I present a portrait of Pinter as a human being; a man of colossal thinking and feeling. It serves secondarily as a primer, to introduce people to Pinter and his work in a way that’s very accessible; very inclusive.
You could say that there’s a certain lack of familiarity with Pinter here, but really, would most people be familiar with Samuel Beckett? Or the work of Sam Shepard? In the end, I suppose it comes down to dramatic theater being something of a minority pursuit. If it’s not a musical, it’s probably not what most people would think of when they’re asked to name a stage show.
What is it about Pinter, in your opinion, that keeps him at a bit of a distance from the American audience?
They think of him as being very heavy, serious, dry, when in fact he’s massively funny and entertaining…he was a lot funnier than his reputation suggests. What I present is measured in laughter…it’s also profoundly moving.
Another thing with Pinter’s plays, I think, is that he doesn’t reveal himself to the extent that other playwrights do…he doesn’t insert himself into the action in the form of a character. Whereas in his poetry and prose, he’s very much revealed. It makes for a compelling 90 minutes, I can assure you.
Walk us back to the origins of this show, to the initial contact with Pinter, and how this took shape from a collaboration you did with him. Also, when and how did John Malkovich come aboard the project?
Pinter saw me on stage in LA, playing Tony Blair in David Hare’s Stuff Happens, and we met up for lunch afterward. He had committed to a reading of his poetry and his prose writings in London, but by that time he’d been diagnosed with esophageal cancer and it affected his voice, so he asked if I could possibly do the reading for him. We spent a great deal of time working on it together after that, with him showing me how to present it exactly as he intended.
After he died, there were a number of memorial tributes to him in London, New York, but not in LA. I contacted his widow, Antonia Fraser, and suggested doing something here in LA to raise a glass in his memory. I peppered it up with the reminiscences of myself and others, and people responded to it with such a degree of appreciation and enthusiasm that John Malkovich, who was a friend of mine anyway, saw it and said, ‘you know, man, if we work on this we can create a legitimate piece of theater.’
A producer wanted to do it at the Edinburgh Festival in 2010, so I met John in Vienna and we revisited the piece; really tightened it but at the same time, did it in such a way that it can change from one performance to the next, as if I was in a band, doing a set.
And has A Celebration of Pinter met with the approval of his widow, and others who were close to him? Knowing Pinter as you did, are you satisfied that the show captures the essence of the man?
I spent quite some time with Harold Pinter…if I hadn’t had that direct experience, things would have been very different; I wouldn’t have presumed to feel that I had his blessing to do this show. His family and close friends have seen it, and their feeling is that Harold would have been fulfilled and satisfied with the work.
One of the things that intrigues me about the program is the inclusion of Pinter’s so-called “political prose”…he wrote a lot of essays and op-ed pieces, and a lot of what he wrote and said has been branded anti-American, anti-Israel…
I draw from things like his Nobel acceptance speech, which encapsulates so much of what he was in the last ten years of his life…his dynamic activism.
In America, his political views were often used to demonize him…in reality, it was just one aspect of a complex man, who never shied away from expressing himself. He loved American people, but as a conscientious objector he was very angry over U.S. foreign policy. He would say that if he’d been called up during wartime he would have fought, but being drafted in a time of peace just served to perpetuate human conflict.
And would you say that each performance is a fluid thing unto itself…do you have more than a full-length show’s worth of material to draw from at any time?
It’s an ever-evolving work in progress; a unique experience for me and for the audience. I have license to change it depending on the mood of the room. I structure it so that I can make those choices, so that it stays fresh for me.
The idea of dressing up as Harold Pinter was never my intent…it was more about my sharing experiences of working with him. I enjoy being Harold’s voice…and as I continue to perform it, my curiosity about him is ever more stimulated.
Tickets for “A Celebration of Harold Pinter,” priced at $25 and $37, can be reserved right here.