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Actor Julian Sands reveals a Harold Pinter both tender and terrifying in his one-man ‘Celebration’

British dramatist, screenwriter, director and actor Harold Pinter was one of the foremost playwrights of the late 20th century. The Nobel Prize laureate was known for his “comedies of menace,” works characterized by their acerbic, almost brutal wit and thinly veiled and often direct political criticisms. 

But Pinter also was a tender poet, as well as an avid supporter of the English game of cricket, the language of which often found its way into his literary works. Actor Julian Sands has made it one of his missions to introduce audiences to this alternative side of Pinter’s creative genius.

A Celebration of Harold Pinter, Sands’ one-man homage to the late literary giant, arrives at the Wisconsin Union Theatre on the UW-Madison campus on Feb. 19. 

Pinter’s poetry and plays stand side by side in the one-man show, directed by actor John Malkovich. Sands’ own personal experiences with the dramatist, who died of cancer in 2008, provide insight into the playwright and his works.

“There is a sort of universality that comes when great playwrights observe and present the human condition,” Sands says. “It’s true of Mamet, Chekov and Tennessee Williams and I think its true of Harold Pinter.”

In fact, it was Pinter who tapped Sands, known for his theater, film and television work, to perform in a prototype of the current show. By then the actor already was quite familiar with Pinter’s work.

“My initial exposure to Pinter as a playwright was during my high school studies in England in the 1970s,” says Sands. “I was astonished by his use of language, character and landscape. There was something so ‘other’ about his writing compared to what we had been studying, and I spent a lot of time seeing his plays that were in production.”

As an actor, Sands became even more familiar with Pinter’s work. He even appeared in an appropriately creepy 1987 ABC TV version of Pinter’s The Room, directed by Robert Altman, which also featured Donald Pleasence and Linda Hunt.

“I was thrilled when I was asked to do the film,” the actor says. “I coincidentally played the character of Mr. Sands and Annie Lennox (of the pop group Eurythmics) played Mrs. Sands.”

The Celebration show’s origins go back to 2005, when Pinter was asked to give a recital of some of his poems at a London fundraiser. The writer already was suffering from throat cancer, which impaired his speaking voice, and he asked Sands to do the reading.

Pinter served as director of what Sands describes as “a remarkable master class” in the playwright/poet’s work. Pinter, Sands says, was almost like a conductor in his direction of the actor’s interpretation of his pieces.

“The general tuning up of my skills by Harold was like being back in drama school,” Sands remembers. “It was so profound and meaningful that everything I have done since was informed by these sessions with Harold.”

The public reading was a success and Sands repeated it in Los Angeles. He also produced CDs for friends who couldn’t attend, including Malkovich, whom Sands met on the set of the 1984 film The Killing Fields.

Malkovich specialized in Pinter when he studied theater at Illinois State University in Normal. He also directed several Pinter plays when he was affiliated with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and worked with Pinter on a BBC production of the author’s play Old Times. The veteran actor and director knew Sands’ reading was a formal theater piece in the making and the pair began working to broaden the show into its current format.

Over the next few years, Sands and Malkovich collaborated between acting and directing assignments and Celebration took shape. The first formal performance took place in 2011 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, then ran for 50 performances off-Broadway at New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre.

According to Sands — who will come to Madison from Brussels where he is filming The Toy Gun, a gritty, dark comedy for director Marco Serafini — Celebration remains an ever-evolving entity.

“It is above all an entertainment, rather than a dry or academic piece of theater,” Sands says. “But this is Harold Pinter, so fasten your seatbelts.”

The lure of Pinter has as much to do with his language as it does dramatic situations, both of which mirror reality more than they do theatricality, Sands says. The dialogue in Pinter plays reflects what is said and what goes unsaid as an effort to realistically further the story.

“Harold had an ear and an understanding of the silences, pauses and interrupted utterances that make up the most human dialogue, as opposed to well-made sentences that were written and crafted by well-educated middle class people,” Sands says. “It has a musical component that is emotionally and intellectually interesting, and the way he was able to set down exchanges between people was real, which is so interesting to an actor.”

Pinter plays also reflect the often acerbic and controversial nature of the writer. Pinter was a left-leaning intellectual who, in 1948 London, refused British military conscription as a conscientious objector. He was involved in nuclear disarmament efforts and the anti-apartheid movement. He was a vocal critic of the Gulf wars, calling British Prime Minister Tony Blair “a deluded idiot” and comparing the George W. Bush administration to Nazi Germany.

“I am sure he would have very active thoughts about the political landscape today and would not shy away from expressing them,” Sands says. “He would likely be despairing of many things going on today, but I’d like to think he’d retain some hope that reason and humanity would prevail.”

While Pinter’s political persona was very public, his poetry, less well-known, revealed a quieter, more personal side. His love poems to second wife Antonia Fraser are particularly touching, Sands says.

“When I first read these love poems, I couldn’t believe that Harold could be as romantic, as passionate, as deeply felt to the love of his life,” Sands says. “We’re used to his anger, disdain and despair. We could anticipate that, but I could not have anticipated the sweetness and tenderness of the love poems. My favorites from among his poems are included in the performance.”

Pinter’s tender poems will be mixed with some of his less tender play excerpts, obituaries and Sands’ reminiscences.

One does not have to be a Pinter scholar to enjoy the evening, Sands says, just possess an interest in what the power of language can accomplish in the hands of a master of the art.

“Harold’s work holds up a galvanizing mirror to our own lives,” Sands says. “My encounter with the material leaves me both humble and inspired when I leave the stage. That’s what I hope the audience takes away too, as well as having a good time and being well-entertained.”

ON STAGE 

A Celebration of Harold Pinter, featuring actor Julian Sands, will be performed at 8 p.m. Feb. 19 at the Wisconsin Union Theatre, 800 Langdon St., Madison. Tickets range from $10 to $40. Visit union.wisc.edu or call 608-265-2787.

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