Unquestionably one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century, the late Harold Pinter almost inevitably invokes the word “dark” as an adjective for his plays. On Monday at the Herbst Theatre, stage and screen actor Julian Sands seeks to expose other facets of the complex Nobel Prize-winning author, actor and director.
“There is a light, bright, entertaining side of Pinter which inevitably comes to the fore if you make the effort to present a rounded portrait of him, his sensibility and his work,” Sands says.
He speaks from firsthand knowledge.
“I knew him in my life since high school,” he recalls. “I’d never before come across language or ideas like his. It compounded my design to be an actor.”
The two met over the years in and around the London theater circuit. The relationship became more personal when Pinter, then struggling with cancer, personally chose Sands to be his voice, reading a selection of the author’s poetry for a charity recital in 2005.
“I didn’t know that part of his body of work at all at that time,” Sands says. The event was a success in large part, according to Sands, because Pinter personally tutored him in the text. “As far as I know, I am the only person with whom he worked on his poetry because he was so possessive of it himself.”
After Pinter’s death in 2008, Sands delivered an augmented version of the recital for a small group in Los Angeles as a memorial to Pinter. He was immediately peppered with requests to perform the piece for acting classes and small theater groups.
He continued to develop “A Celebration of Harold Pinter” and surprisingly, despite hundreds of performing credits elsewhere, made his New York stage debut with it last fall.
Sands calls the work “a word portrait.” Neither an impression nor a straightforward biography, the evening consists of his personal recollections of Pinter, accented with quotes from letters, poems and other Pinter writings.
“We’ve tried to put together what is, above all, an entertainment, for all its profundity,” Sands says. “There is great soulfulness and romance. He was a tremendous romantic.”
The “we” refers to fellow actor John Malkovich, who directed the piece. The pair met while filming 1984’s “The Killing Fields” and have remained friends.
“When we met,” Sands recalls, “one of the things that bonded us closely was wrapping ourselves in Pinter-esque dialogue. He’d been involved in Pinter plays at Steppenwolf and I was fascinated with how a boy from the Midwest could be so taken with this sort of strange, pseudo-Cockney culture and dialogue.”
If you go: A Celebration of Harold Pinter
- Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
- When: 7:30 p.m. Monday
- Tickets: $22 to $27
- Contact: (415) 392-4400, www.cityarts.net