NEW YORK—Harold Pinter (1930–2008) did not consider himself the greatest living playwright of his time. That honor, as Pinter noted, belonged to Samuel Beckett. This is one of many anecdotes recalled by actor Julian Sands in his absolutely brilliant one-man show “A Celebration of Harold Pinter.”
Winningly directed by John Malkovich, the show was first presented at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011 and is now making its U.S. debut at the Irish Repertory Theatre.
As Sands points out, Pinter, who has more than 29 stage plays and 21 screenplays to his credit, was a master when it came to the nuances of language. He was adept at employing the right kinds of words for maximum effect.
Sands looks at these works though the prism of the man who wrote them, though both Sands and Pinter often leave the audience the task of unraveling just what those words mean.
Interestingly, Sands focuses on Pinter’s poetry rather than his better remembered stage and screenplays, reading from a number of selections and wonderfully emoting them with proper passion and pauses.
Pauses are an important tool in the Pinter canon. For as it’s explained, there is a big difference between a pause, a silence, and a beat when reciting dialogue.
Among the Pinter poems Sands presents are works about the stock market, the weather, the sport of cricket (a huge passion of Pinter’s), and in a bit of an ongoing theme, a piece about the correction, not connection, between life and death.
The pieces range in tone from the politically satirical (“Let’s kill all the Lefties”) to the more somber and quiet. The latter is expressed when Pinter writes about his relationship with his wife, Antonia Fraser, and the passion he felt for her. He also talks about cancer, the disease that eventually killed him.
Sands also looks at Pinter’s work as an actor, particularly Pinter’s tenure touring the Irish provinces with Anew McMaster’s company in the 1950s. McMaster is someone Pinter respected and who wound up as the subject of one of Pinter’s poems.
It is through Sands’s often humorous recollections that a picture of Pinter begins to emerge. It was one of a man totally serious about his craft—he corrected Sands once when Sands tried to tell Pinter there was a typo in one of his works. He never suffered fools gladly; always telling them what he thought, often with a dash of wry wit in the delivery.
Continually switching between the conversational and the poetical, the poetry being somewhat profanity-laden on occasion, Sands is at ease with the material. He makes it seem like he is speaking one-on-one with each member of the audience.
Just as importantly, Sands never talks down to those in attendance. He treats those who have come to see him as having just as much passion and knowledge about Pinter and his works as he himself obviously has.
Direction by Malkovich is very good, as he lets Sands’s stories and Pinter’s words guide the play while making the entire experience feel as if it’s taking place in one’s own living room. The work hits all the high notes and never overstays its welcome; in fact, one finds oneself wishing the play were longer by at least half.
The set, such as it is, consists of tiny table and a few books—all Pinter-related. The lighting by Michael O’Connor was simple and effective.
“A Celebration of Harold Pinter” offers an interesting and enjoyable snapshot of a well-respected writer and how he saw the world. It shines a light on the poetical body of work he left behind, work sadly often overshadowed by his other literary endeavors.
Bravo to all on this one.
“A Celebration of Harold Pinter”
Irish Repertory Theatre
W. Scott McLucas Studio Theatre
132 West 22nd Street
Tickets: 212-727-2737 or visit www.irishrep.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, including intermission
Closes: Nov. 25
Judd Hollander is the New York correspondent for the London publication The Stage.
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