Throwing himself into the egalitarian spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival, John Malkovich has been spotted flyering the crowds on the city center streets. Thesp was in town as helmer of this anthology of poetry and a little prose by the late playwright Harold Pinter put together by his friend, actor Julian Sands. Delivered with sensitivity and precision, it is a performance as stripped back and elemental as Pinter’s language, delivered to an aud happy to savor the British actor’s every word.
Sands explains his interest in Pinter goes back to his high school days when he studied “The Birthday Party,” later working on scenes at drama school in London and becoming a great fan. In 1987, he starred in “Basements,” a TV adaptation of two Pinter plays “The Room” and “The Dumb Waiter,” playing a “menacing” character called Mr. Sands. Then, six years ago, the playwright asked him to deliver a poetry reading on his behalf. Too ill to perform it himself, the scribe was nonetheless exacting in his instructions to Sands. It was the actor’s first encounter with Pinter’s poetry and the basis of this performance.
Sands builds the show around the romantic, personal and political poems in Pinter’s “Various Voices,” adding commentary from colleagues and critics, observations by the playwright’s widow, Lady Antonia Fraser, and the occasional anecdote of his own. He recalls the shame of suggesting to Pinter there was a typo in one of his poems (the word “corrects” appearing where he expected to see “connects”) and the withering reply he got in return. He mentions the critic who said he was scared to shake the playwright’s hand for fear of the electrical charge, and gives an illuminating imitation of Pinter explaining the difference between a beat, a pause and a silence.
Appearing on a bare stage in a black suit and an open-collared white shirt, Sands is poised, serious and striking, with his angular features and thinning shock of spiky blond hair. Under the no-nonsense direction of Malkovich, whom he has known since meeting on the set of “The Killing Fields,” he punches out Pinter’s clipped Anglo-Saxon language with a sharp attack, tilting his upper body toward us for emphasis. His performance is taut, clean and actorly.
Framing the selection with Pinter’s observation that his writing life was defined by “relish, challenge and excitement,” Sands gives equal weight to the writer’s various passions. If there’s not quite as much of the political poetry as you would expect from so outspoken a human-rights campaigner, that is because Sands wants also to give a flavor of Pinter’s love of cricket, of his wife and of his own life after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2002. The poetry, he argues, is not unrelated to the plays, but is more subjective and “came from himself.”
As celebrations go, it is an austere, ascetic and restrained performance, one that captures the pugnacity, precision and a little of the dry humor of an exacting writer.