Pinter is best known as the Nobel Prize-winning playwright who in the 1960s was among a group of young writers who changed the direction of English-language theater.
Pinter, sometimes regarded as an heir to the absurdists, wrote chilly, cerebral, archly amusing plays about conflicts that were often depicted obliquely. His early plays were labeled “comedies of menace,” and he became famous for his use of pregnant pauses.
In all, Pinter wrote about 30 plays as well as more than 20 screenplays and numerous TV dramas, many of them based on his own plays.
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But that’s not all he did. He was an actor and a poet. And the poetry, Sands argued in a recent interview, revealed a side of Pinter that rarely, if ever, manifested itself in theater or film.
“The extraordinary revelation to me was the extraordinary intensity of his feelings,” Sands said from Los Angeles. “His poetry revealed his objective feelings, his intelligence, his life, his laugh and his humanity in a very direct way. …
“For a man who was immensely private, in the poetry his emotional life was very, very open. His capacity for romantic feeling is directly expressed. The absolute devotion to romantic love was beguiling. And it continues to beguile me.”
Sands, British-born and based in L.A., will pay tribute to the poetic side of the writer when he performs his solo show, “A Celebration of Harold Pinter,” on Friday at Johnson County Community College.
Pinter died in 2008. He had suffered from esophageal cancer, and although he continued his acting career for a time, the illness eventually left him unable to perform vocally. He and Sands had become friends, and about three years before his death Pinter turned to the actor to perform a recital of his poetry.
After Pinter’s death, Sands decided to repeat the performance as a way of memorializing his friend. He did so with the approval of Pinter’s widow, author Antonia Fraser.
“It was only supposed to be for one evening, but the response of people was overwhelming,” he said.
That brought the performance to the attention of actor John Malkovich, with whom Sands has been friends since they both performed in the 1984 film “The Killing Fields.”
“That was 31 years ago,” he said. “One of our bonding understandings was our mutual appreciation of Harold Pinter’s plays and our ability to quote from them. And we still do.”
Malkovich wanted to develop the show and direct it. The performance Sands and Malkovich eventually shaped includes not only Pinter’s poems but also excerpts from his prose and interviews, as well as personal recollections from Sands and others. In 2011 they unveiled the piece in the Edinburgh Fringe. The show was a success and soon after Sands toured Ireland.
“The material we had as the basis we wanted to reconsider, and introduce more material,” Sands said. “We took it through all of his poetry to see what worked … and to find the right balance. I think John brought much greater stillness to the presentation.”
The show can change from one performance to another, because the structure allows Sands to pick and choose what to include up to a point.
“It has changed and developed and been examined many, many times,” he said. “Seldom is a (performance) the same playlist as another. I have a structure now, with a beginning, middle and end, but yet it’s a structure that’s a result of many months of work and consideration and reconsideration. I think I have the right balance now.”
Sands maintains a busy career in film and television but continues to perform the Pinter show when it fits his schedule.
“I think being a wandering minstrel is the way I look at it,” he said. “I describe it as Homeric theater … where actors would travel from village to village and set up their tents. So I’m looking forward to putting up my tent in Overland Park.”
Sands wanted to emphasize that the key word in the title is “celebration.” The show is meant to be accessible.
“Audiences around the world feel immensely reconnected to their humanity,” he said. “Anyone who knows nothing of Harold will leave knowing something. There’s no requisite to be a theater scholar or an authority on Harold Pinter’s work.
“Eventually we wanted a show which is above all entertainment. John and I made that our prime objective — to create an evening of material that compels but utterly entertains.”
Sands is proud to be the only actor in the world who has worked on Pinter’s poetry on the level of a recital that tours internationally.
“It has been a privilege to continue taking this body of work around the world,” he said. “The first half is about 45 minutes. There’s a short intermission and then the second half is about 40 minutes.
“Nobody has ever asked for their money back and nobody has left early. Yes, it is theater. I’m not coming all the way to Overland Park to give people anything else.”
“A Celebration of Harold Pinter” will be performed by Julian Sands at 8 p.m. Friday in the Carlsen Center’s Polsky Theatre at Johnson County Community College, Quivira Road and College Boulevard, Overland Park. For more information, call 913-469-4445 or go to JCCC.edu.
Julian Sands career highlights
“The Killing Fields” (1984)
“A Room With a View” (1985)
“Impromptu” (1991) as Franz Liszt
“Kenneth Tynan: In Praise of Hardcore” (TV film, 2005) as Laurence Olivier
“24” (2006 season) as Vladimir Bierko
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (2011)
“Crossbones” (2014 series) with John Malkovich
Key works by Harold Pinter:
“The Birthday Party” (play, 1957)
“The Homecoming” (play, 1964)
“The Go-Between” (screenplay, 1969)
“The Last Tycoon” (screenplay, 1974)
“Betrayal” (play, 1978)
“The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (screenplay, 1980)
“Turtle Diary” (screenplay, 1984)
“Remembrance of Things Past” (play, 2000)