To descend into the small basement performance at the Irish Repertory Theatre for Julian Sands’ A Celebration of Harold Pinter is to walk into a wonderfully intimate, casual salon that’s fueled by passion and linguistic alchemy. So it’s hardly surprising that will audiences will get swept up into his zealous admiration for this iconic author.
Looking comfortably dapper in dark suit and white shirt, Sands performs the unscripted piece — which has been directed by John Malkovich — on a nearly bare stage. The one exception is a small table on which lie several well-worn, dog-eared, and post-it laden books, primarily Pinter’s Various Voices, a collection of Pinter’s prose and poetry, from which Sands selects his material.
What emerges is a portrait of the world-renowned playwright that goes well beyond the works he wrote for the stage. For instance, theatergoers learn about Pinter’s work as an actor in the early 1950s, when he toured Ireland performing Shakespeare with one of the U.K.’s last actor-managers, along with Pinter’s personal life (several pieces focus on his marriage to Lady Antonia Fraser), and his political activism.
For those who know Pinter’s plays, it will come as no surprise that the writer’s poems are both terse to the point of bluntness, and yet, movingly lyrical, such as one in which Pinter reflects on his battle with cancer.
Appropriately, Sands’ delivery proves to be crisp, heated, and just a bit wily. And the sense of his unswerving admiration and respect for the language and his understanding of Pinter’s intent for each piece never flags, even when his intense delivery of certain stinging passages shifts into a realm of semi-melodrama.
Fortunately, such moments are fleeting and often followed by ones in which the performer shifts to a charming affability, as he shares a personal memory of his encounters with Pinter or reads from works penned by others (such as London theater critic Michael Billington, who has written an appreciation of Pinter as an actor specifically for the show).
Best of all, a selection from Fraser about her first, and humorously antagonistic, meeting with Pinter sparks one of the evening’s biggest laughs. It perfectly captures so many facets of this complicated man: his prickliness, tenderness, playfulness, compassion, and more.