A celebration of Harold Pinter

What’s the game?

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 27.01.2017

An almost empty stage. There is only a small round table with two books and a few loose sheets of paper on it. Once Julian Sands enters in a tailored dark suit; it is all that is needed for a very moving act of theatre to begin.

John Malkovich directs A celebration of Harold Pinter, a solo show that turns out to be a fascinating mix of personal anecdotes, poetry, politics and biography. We hear very little about the enigmatic plays that made Pinter famous, yet get an insight into his less well known poetry as well as into his life. The two books, we soon find out, are Various voices: prose, poetry, politics 1948-2005, a collection that spans the writer’s whole career, and Must you go?, Antonia Fraser’s memoir of their marriage. They met when they were both middle-aged and remained inseparable for 33 years.

The show actually came about when Pinter requested Sands to read his poetry in 2005 on behalf of a charity in a City church as he was too ill to do so himself. They worked on the recital in a series of tutorials, which Sands evokes with both nostalgia and tongue-in-cheek humour.

In interviews Pinter routinely came across as impatient or fierce, even rude and abrasive. He definitely did not do small talk! But what Sands offers is an honest, warm evocation of a close friend who was demanding and uncompromising, but also loyal and generous. After Pinter’s death in 2008, Sands added an introduction and comments of his own, so the recital has become a memorial tribute, a proper theatre experience that had a three-week sell-out run at the Edinburgh festival in 2011 and then went on tour.

We hear about long lunches in the English countryside, at which Pinter’s passion for cricket was central to conversations more than once, just as it is in his writing, which is peppered with cricketing terms or the names of legendary players.

According to Sands, growing up in London’s East End in the 1930s, where anti-Semitism was rife, made Pinter develop a deep sense of social injustice that became the basis of his life-long political activism and culminated in his powerful Nobel speech. As he was too weak to travel to the ceremony in 2005, he recorded the address in a London TV studio. Strongly marked by the cancer that eventually killed him, he sits upright in his wheelchair, his legs covered in a blanket. The contrast between his physical frailty and the incandescence of the rage he can hardly contain could hardly be more powerful. He denounces American imperialism and rails against Bush and Blair before heralding the concept of truth, immovable and absolute. It is one of the most striking moments Sands evokes.

The latter’s delivery is both impassioned and direct. The intensity of the show never flags even though he often switches gear: thus, he may suddenly become the hostile activist who has no time for political waffle or self-congratulation before seamlessly turning into the speaker in a love poem set in a Paris hotel room. A carefully timed pause is all it takes. No doubt, Pinter would have approved!

From time to time Sands also assumes the playwright’s raspy tones and slips into a Pinter impersonation. One six-line 1975 poem is repeated three times. “I know the place” thus punctuates an evening that will haunt you for days, the evocation of a life lived to the full. The greatest 20th-century playwright? – Pinter himself would have given that accolade to Samuel Beckett, his hero.

In any case, seeing A celebration of Harold Pinter on the very day Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States carried a deep, sad irony of its own.

A celebration of Harold Pinter was at the National Theatre on January 19, 20 and 21.
Janine Goedert
© 2017 d’Lëtzebuerger Land