Don’t be alarmed if you’re visiting Kensal Green Cemetery in London and you hear a familiar-looking fellow talking to the tombstone of a Nobel laureate. It’s only actor Julian Sands communing with Harold Pinter, the mighty spirit of his solo show about a master writer, teacher and lover of humanity.
A Celebration of Harold Pinter, which Sands will perform October 6 at Lafayette College, is an intimate portrait of someone best known as a writer of plays—The Birthday Party, Betrayal—where intimacies are ruthlessly guarded and exposed. Wearing a casually elegant suit and tieless shirt, Sands creates a cyclorama of stories, quips and excerpts from Pinter’s writings, including his acceptance speech for the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature. The program is anchored by Pinter’s poems about his passions for language, politics, peace, dignity, cricket and Antonia Fraser, his wife and fellow writer. Their 33-year affair began at a party ended by Pinter asking “Must you go?”
Sands’ affair with Pinter’s plays started as a teen in his native Yorkshire. In 1987, two years after his breakthrough role as a kind son and humorously awkward lover in the movie A Room with a View, he played Mr. Sands in Basements, Robert Altman’s TV film of Pinter’s play The Room. Since then he’s cultivated a Pinter-esque persona—subtly funny, sublimely creepy, charmingly disarming—while playing everyone from a spider scientist to a warlock, Louis XIV to Tony Blair.
It was Sands’ turn as the former British prime minister in the play Stuff Happens that compelled Pinter to invite him to a 2005 lunch. During the meal Pinter surprised Sands, a casual acquaintance, by asking him to read his poems during a charity event in London; Pinter couldn’t appear because his splendid voice was sapped by esophageal cancer. Famously fastidious about the meaning of his words and punctuations, Pinter spent four afternoons coaching Sands in the nuances of beats, pauses and silences. Sands compares those 12 hours in Pinter’s study to “swimming with a tiger shark.”
Three years later, Sands produced a Pinter memorial in a Hollywood church hall. That tribute became the trampoline for Celebration, which is directed by actor John Malkovich, whom Sands befriended while filming The Killing Fields. Their Pinter collaboration debuted at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where Sands distributed flyers on streets.
Sands, 57, has called himself a roving rogue, a happy descendant of wandering performers of “rags, patches, songs, ballads and snatches.” Below, in a conversation from his California home, he discusses a Homeric quest blessed by fans of Warlock and a favorite writer from the great beyond.
Q: You were a Pinter fan before you became a professional performer. Did his writing help make you want to act for a living? If so, what did he give you that you needed?
A: When I went to drama school Pinter’s texts were always at the basis of our scene work. I always felt this tremendous connection, as did many other actors. Because he had been an actor himself, his ear for language was very practiced and intuitively brilliant. I was inspired by the complete originality of his works for the stage. His situations and landscapes had such a refreshing perspective. His characters were people I felt that I knew and could be. I’m thinking particularly of Mick and Aston, the very different brothers in The Caretaker. I grew up with brothers, so I knew the depth and range of sibling shifts of perspective.
Although I first studied Harold’s work as a teen, it’s as an adult, past 40, that I really came to fully appreciate and relish it. One of the things about his writing is that it is very much written for grownups.
Q: Why did Harold ask you to substitute for him, to be his voice, at that 2005 charity recital? Did he sense in you what many of us sense in you: a complete package of seductive danger and accessible mystery?
A: Thank you for that; you sound like my wife [writer Evgenia Citkowitz, mother of their two daughters]. I can’t answer that in truth. Harold had seen my work in Robert Altman’s film of his play The Room. I think he just felt this was just a good fit. I think it was possibly an easy conclusion that this was a good idea even though he was left with the burden of me.
It has never troubled me why Harold asked me to read his poetry for him. I understand that his request is a gift, especially because it could so easily not have happened. It seems to have had an inevitability in a way that now makes more sense to me. It was a passing of some baton, even though it was unspoken. It simply continues to be a great and providential mission.
Q: You’ve compared rehearsing with Harold to “swimming with a tiger shark.” It must have been unnerving at first to speak his words while he was mouthing them. What did he do to you that no director had done?
A: Harold’s understanding of text, his understanding of language, not just of its meaning but its onomatopoeic power, was quite unique and brilliant. His standard of performance was uncompromising. He was like a great musician, a great conductor. I think of my time with him as a series of master classes. It was like going back to drama school in your late 40s. It was as if I was working with somebody who somehow unlocked 30 years of bad habits, 30 years of accumulated plaque and detritus in the plumbing. He somehow cleaned everything out, and it was like starting afresh.
Q: You worked closely on Celebration with Antonia Fraser, Harold’s widow and a prominent historian. What was her most valuable advice?
A: She encouraged me to visit his grave. I have recited the show at his gravesite; I’m the mad muttering man of a certain West London cemetery [laughs]. The gravesite interaction brought me—I’m not sure if I received permission, but it was an endorsement, a blessing. Harold was no metaphysician, but I did feel there was some sort of strange metaphysical thing, that’s all I can tell you. Antonia thoroughly approved and required no convincing of this. She said: “Yes, that sounds like Harold.”
Q: Why do you repeat Harold’s five-line poem “I Know the Place” four times? I know it allows you to tell a funny story about Harold ripping you a new one for mistaking the word “corrects” for “connects.” [“I know the place./It is true./Everything we do/Corrects the space between death and me/And you.”]
A: I find that those few lines have such passion and power and complexity that I need to repeat them in order to get some degree of understanding. I find the poem to be a beautiful mantra; it approaches the priestly. I remember that a nuclear physicist stayed behind after a performance to tell me that it was “the most perfect expression of Einstein’s theory of relativity I’ve ever heard.”
Q: I’m sure a fair share of folks have come to your Harold show simply because they want to commune live and in person with the actor who played some of their favorite characters: Shelley in Gothic, Vladimir Bierko in 24, two incarnations of the Warlock. Did any of these Pinter rookies tell you that you radically expanded their horizons?
A: I’ve tried in my work to explore as many characters and genres as have been available to me. It’s very gratifying when they overlap and interact; it’s a great continuum of what one calls a career. Knowing that a fan of the Warlock films with no previous knowledge of Harold’s work was enchanted and astonished by Harold—that is to me a great success. All are welcome. I like to stress that when John [Malkovich] and I tried to create a show, above all we wanted to create an entertainment, something people would enjoy very much. In no way were we trying to create an academic, dry evening of Harold Pinter appreciation. This is: Get ready for a wild ride; fasten your seatbelts.
What’s so touching is that so many people have stayed behind to share their understanding, their appreciation. Even hardcore Harold fans have told me that they had no idea of the existence of this material, particularly his poems. It was in his poetry that he expressed his love, his humor, his intelligence and his humanity; it was in his poetry that he truly revealed himself.
Q: How has this show changed you as an actor? Do you feel an itch to perform more solo plays? I can definitely see you playing the title character in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, the last role Harold performed.
A: I would consider performing, when the time is right, other solo pieces written by Harold I’ve done at readings. I’d love to approach Krapp at some point; it has such remarkable all-encompassing language and drama. Harold’s performance was beautiful. One knew him to be a dying man; there was no artifice.
I would say every single job I’ve done has been completely informed, hallmarked, by the time we spent together, to the good of my work. Working with Harold, performing this play, has given me more confidence. I would never have thought that performing onstage alone was ever going to be a good idea for me. I need the company of the ensemble, the collaboration, to spark off. What I discovered is that the greatest collaborations, the greatest sparks, are between the actor and the audience.
And that is why I always have the house lights up enough so that we can see each other, so that everyone knows something about everyone. I’ve described this play as Homeric theater. I’m traveling from village to village, going from campfire to campfire, telling the story of Harold Pinter in much the same way as Homer might have been telling the story of Odysseus. It has the same sharing, encompassing experience I imagine that people felt in caves.
Q: Have you had any recent revelations that have made performing Celebration more meaningful and celebratory?
A: The show continues to excite and thrill me. Every time I do it there are new glimpses of the nuances of Harold’ s mind—flashes of light, fireworks of understanding. One continues to strive for a level which might satisfy Harold, perhaps even please him. He has a habit of showing up in these shows which is undeniable. I feel his aura very definitely. I still feel that watchful, judgmental, biblical eye upon me.
Q: Back in 2011, shortly after you launched Celebration, you told Charlie Rose that you felt Harold as a bird of prey on your arm. Four years later, do you still feel his clawing, his urging for you to fly?
A: I feel that he’s perhaps not on my arm but on a stand nearby. Perhaps he’s a more benign bird of prey. Perhaps that’s an improvement [laughs].
Julian Sands, “A Celebration of Harold Pinter,” 8 p.m. October 6, Williams Center for the Arts, Lafayette College, Easton. Tickets: $31. 610-330-5009, http://williamscenter.lafayette.edu.
—Geoff Gehman is the author of the memoir “The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up in the Long-Lost Hamptons” (SUNY Press).
Geoff Gehman, September 2015