Julian Sands brings the poetry of Pinter to Emory

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Sept. 18, 2014

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Julian Sands performs "A Celebration of Harold Pinter." He brings the one-man show to Emory's Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts on Sept. 22. Courtesy photo.

For actor Julian Sands, the invitation to give voice to acclaimed British playwright Harold Pinter's poetry came unexpectedly.

It was in 2005. Sands was attending a luncheon at the English country home of Pinter's wife, author Lady Antonia Frasier, when Pinter abruptly mentioned that although he was scheduled to present a special recitation of his poetry in London, his voice wasn't up for it — he'd been fighting esophageal cancer since 2001.

"Would you do it for me?" Pinter asked. "Of course, it would mean that we'd have to spend some time together…"

To recall it now, Sands can't resist chuckling — there was never a question about his answer. An invitation to work with the Nobel Prize-winning playwright, considered by many to be one of the greatest modern dramatists? It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

On the other hand, he knew absolutely nothing of Pinter's poetry — didn't even know that the celebrated playwright-actor-director had ever dabbled in poetry, although Pinter had increasingly turned to producing poems in his later years.

And there was also Pinter's fiercely complex personality to consider, both famously prickly and somewhat daunting. "It was a bit like the eagle asking you to come into his cage," Sands recalled with amusement during a recent phone interview.

So began what Sands now considers his "masterclass" with Pinter — hours spent in careful collaboration around exactly how his poems should be delivered, with Pinter weighing in on each pause, every nuance of tone.

Following Pinter's death in 2008, Sands reprised his original reading of Pinter's poetry, first for a memorial tribute and eventually in the form of a one-man performance, "Julian Sands: A Celebration of Harold Pinter," which he brings to Emory's Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts under the direction of John Malkovich on Monday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m. Tickets are available online or at the Arts at Emory box office.

The performance combines Pinter's poetry and political prose along with personal anecdotes and reflections drawn from their work together. Sands, who appears as a Schwartz Center Artist-in-Residence, will also hold a post-show conversation facilitated by Theater Emory.

The performance is presented in conjunction with "Pinter Fest," a festival celebrating the late playwright (see sidebar). Emory Report caught up with Sands to discuss his tribute performance:

When Pinter originally asked you to perform his poems, you weren't familiar with them. What was your initial impression?

I was absolutely struck by their power, their beauty, their feeling, and the personal revelations (they offered) about his own emotional interior life. His love, his humanity, his politics and philosophy — it's all there. I think his poems made him incredibly accessible. But of course he was very rigorous in how he wanted these poems presented.

What was it like to be coached one-on-one by Pinter?

To some degree, we simply had to get on with the work. Any rehearsal has to be practical — going over lines, discussing the material, what expresses the author best, the vocal dexterity required. In that way, it's like a soloist working with a conductor. What should be the tone of it, the rhythm? Looking back, it was a very providential and blessed encounter. He was ill and looking for an instrument; I was there to serve him. What's happened since that first memorial tribute has had a much bigger resonance than perhaps he or I might have anticipated. I'm very proud of that.

Did the experience more broadly influence your acting?

Yes, unequivocally. I think it changed my technical approach to the work I've done since. He was a very good actor, a very good director. Something about the intimacy of that working experience trickled into my own actor's nervous system in a way that has informed everything I've done since for the better. I have a much more complete consideration (of the craft), having been put through the rigor of working with Harold.

How did that initial recital blossom into a full-fledged theatrical tribute?

After my original performance, he did get back to health and was able to give a few recitals. After he died, in discussion with (his wife) Antonia, it seemed a good idea to present it as a memorial tribute in Los Angeles, basically repeating the original recital, peppered with extracts from obituaries. (Friend and fellow actor) John Malkovich felt it was a good idea to work the material to create a legitimate theater experience. We took it to Edinburgh (Scotland), where it was very well received. Then we went to New York (in 2012) to do 10 shows … and wound up doing 50. Now, I bring it to Emory in Atlanta — the last time I was there I was filming "Boxing Helena" in Buckhead about 20 years ago.

What was your goal in shaping this into an ongoing theatrical work?

What we set out to create was, above all, entertainment intended to compel and thrill the most learned Pinter scholar and the complete novice. We think it's very funny. Harold was a very funny man; for all his uncompromising earnestness and seriousness he had a great wit. There may be people thinking, "Oh my God, is this a poetry festival?" To that I would say, "Think of this as a Harold Pinter ride." You'll find prose and interviews and my own anecdotes from working with him.

Where do you think his poetry fits within the larger body of his work?

I absolutely think it has its place within the Pinter oeuvre, something more than a footnote. Michael Billington, his biographer, came to see the show and was very approving, (saying that) it contributed to an area he was still curious to explore. Essentially, I tell the story of Harold Pinter just like an ancient traveling player, going from village to village and standing in a pool of light — always gathering new information and ideas and shuffling the material a bit, though it has a pretty sound and constant structure.

You've describe this project as "creating an audio portrait" of Pinter. What do you hope audiences find in that experience?

I think they will be entertained and amused. I believe they will be given considerable food for thought and will be moved. They will have an emotional experience, which will be hopefully very fulfilling. And they may be persuaded to give further consideration to Harold Pinter and his plays during Emory's Pinter Festival. But the aim of the evening is to give people an experience that will heighten and deepen a sense of their own humanity.

What has this project taught you about Pinter?

I would say it continues to teach me of the brilliance of his economy of language and his ear for words as landscape. The images he can generate through minimal use of words but maximum use of the power of the arrangement.

How do you think Pinter would have felt about his poetry and prose living on through your performances?

I perform these works with Antonia's (his wife's) blessing. She has seen the show and endorsed it and loves it very much. How would I feel if Harold suddenly appeared at the back of the auditorium? It would be very unnerving, but I have no reason to think he wouldn't have approved. He does have a habit of showing up, hovering as a presence (laughs). He's not unwelcome.

Pinter Fest at Theater Emory

Theater Emory hosts Pinter Fest, a festival celebrating the late British playwright Harold Pinter, with several additional events this fall.

• "Pinter Revue," Oct. 2–11, is a collection of short works spanning more than 30 years in the playwright's career, from "Trouble in the Works" (1959) to "New World Order” (1991). Performed as sketch comedy in the British tradition, the revue will be directed by Donald McManus, Emory faculty expert on Pinter.  Performances will be in the Schwartz Center's theater lab.

• Pinter Staged Reading Series will be Oct. 18-Nov. 8 in the theater lab and include "The Homecoming," "Betrayal," "A Kind of Alaska," "Moonlight" and more.

• "Pinter Visions: A Symposium," Oct. 31-Nov. 2, is an interactive weekend of conversation, performance and screenings with Pinter scholars, playwrights, directors, performers and Emory faculty. 

• "A Pinter Kaleidoscope," directed by Brent Glenn, is described as a "devised theater event" featuring portions from his first play, 'The Room," to the "One for the Road," "The Birthday Party," "The Hothouse," "The Caretaker," and other plays, poems and speeches. “Kaleidoscope" will be Oct. 31-Nov. 9 in the Mary Gray Munroe Theater of the Dobbs University Center.

For more information, visit Theater Emory's Pinter Fest page.