What better way to spend an evening than listening to stories about and poems by Harold Pinter?
The tone is casual. We sit only a few feet away from Julian Sands and he occasionally breaks his monologue to address specific members of the audience. He is a combination between guest lecturer and gregarious host—all that is missing is the wine and hors d’oeuvre. Twice he humbly refers to the show as a “presentation.” After intermission, he jokes that he is surprised to see us still there—and it doesn’t come across as disingenuous. He is sincerely delighted to continue sharing.
Mr. Sands combines personal anecdotes with stories he has gathered from various sources. He recalls that Pinter would only ever wear black—black shoes, black slacks, black turtleneck, and, when he was younger, he would even smoke black cigarettes—though it has been said that when attending funerals he may have donned dark blue. He recites a story about the first meeting between Pinter and his future wife, Antonia Fraser. Ms. Fraser was giving a presentation and Pinter interrupted it by making a commotion at the back of the room; he was apparently berating a man who had opened the door in the middle of the lecture—though so quietly that nobody else had heard. When asked by Ms. Fraser if he was the one who had caused the disturbance, he unapologetically bellowed, “Yes! I do this sort of thing all the time!” Mr. Sands is respectful, of course—he refers to Pinter’s famous question to Ms. Fraser on the night that began their romantic relationship—“Must you go?”—but refrains from mentioning that Pinter was married at the time to Vivien Merchant, who was so devastated by their affair that she drank herself to death.
His analysis of Pinter’s work, while heavily biographical, is nonetheless illuminating. Noting that the playwright’s language is notably combative, he argues that this began as a response to the antisemitism he faced as a child in England—Pinter learned from an early age that words are often the most effective weapons. Though any success on Mr. Sands’ part is quickly deferred to his subject: after a particularly good moment, he shoots a smirk at the audience and modestly raises his eyebrows, as if to say, “Don’t thank me. Thank Harold.”
In 2005, Mr. Sands was asked to replace Pinter at a reading of some of his poetry. One day, he was confident enough to ask if there was a typo in one of the manuscripts; surely he meant “connects the space,” not “corrects the space.” Pinter, sick but still alive enough to fight, cried out that someday Mr. Sands may finally understand what he meant. The short poem is read several times throughout the night: “I know the place. / It is true. / Everything we do / Corrects the space / Between death and me / And you.” Pinter, canonized for his plays but largely ignored for his poetry, has found the ideal advocate in Mr. Sands. In one of the most enjoyable nights I have spent at the theater in a very long time, he corrects the space between the dead playwright, the living actor, and his immortal audience.
A Celebration of Harold Pinter runs through November 30th at the Irish Repertory Theatre. 132 W. 22nd Street New York, NY.