A Fire in the Cave

Review of Julian Sands: A Celebration of Pinter at the Kino-Teatr January 13th & 15th

How can we, with all our affection for our community, not be charmed by an actor of Julian Sand’s international standing telling us how honoured he was to be performing in St Leonard’s? But the enchantment of his performance went far beyond flattery. For an hour and a half, we were connected through him to the electric grid of Pinter’s personality, to all its white-hot extremity, mercurial contradictions, and largesse. This piece was full of his poetry, friends’ recollections, and stories; through which we glimpsed a less hard-soldered nature from the one we may imagine from his plays.

In Pinter’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, he said “truths challenge, recoil, ignore, reflect, tease, and are blind to each other”. This concept translated in plays, such as the Birthday Party, The Collection, and The Room, into a searing delineation of the shifting dynamics of power between people and their consequent helpless isolation from each other. In The Birthday Party, a wife waits on her taciturn husband with appeals for attention (“Is it good? Is it good, Pete?”) then places his fried bread in the hatch so he has to get up and fetch it and is having an affair with the lodger, who befuddles her into denial with his paranoia and aggression. In The Collection, power shifts between the characters in relation to their manipulations of each other’s understanding of a wife’s exact relationship with a lover. Truth is the subject here, but it is never arrived at, it remains in the control of the last person who has the power to withhold it.

Pinter’s total familiarity with such mechanisms of control and shifts in perception is expressed in a key poem, ‘I Know the Place’.

I know the place.
It is true.
Everything we do
Corrects the space
Between death and me
And you.

Julian quotes this poem several times, and, with engaging humility, tells of the time when he first saw it published and said to Pinter, “There’s a typo – it should be connects, not corrects.” “It’s ‘corrects’ – one day you might understand what it means.” Pinter growled at him.
The poem expresses Pinter’s fascination with the space which permanently exists between us and our looming mortality; our constant desire to extinguish those distances which we can only ever adjust, not diminish. The economy of the poem is extraordinary, with its touch upon expanses of time, emotional distance, inevitability, and human frailty.

It is a bleak view and one which fed decades of plays, which inspired generations of actors not just with their ideas and content but with Pinter’s own style of production, which gave a haunting intensity to the quotidian. In contrast, however, Julian’s performance is a celebration of the very opposite: of a friendship and rich unbroken connection through years and across continents. In his recitation, he is by turns affectionate, droll, awe-struck, moved to tears, impassioned, and restrained; through his description of their friendship and collaboration, we come to appreciate the draw of Pinter’s personality. In addition, it is through another great friendship that this production has come about: that between Julian Sands and John Malkovich. They met on the set of The Killing Fields, a first film for them both, bonded over their love of Pinter’s work and have remained firm friends ever since.

John_Malkovich_Julian_Sands_Julian describes him as ‘my closest friend’ and in a publicity shot for the film A Postcard from Istanbul (2015) they embrace in close-toning suits and look like a pair of non-identical Siamese twins.

That quality of connection and trust led to a kind of wi-fi short-hand when it came to constructing this production. Julian told me that John described his directorial role – in a classically Californian analogy – as that of a life-guard, where the writing is the surfboard, Julian the surfer, and the actions are the waves (a longing, perhaps, for a beach John never has time to enjoy). Julian described the relationship as one of conductor to soloist, looking for insights and reflecting back to the performer, providing a foil, being a friend to the production. Underpinning all this is the hard rock of professionalism, with Julian doing a weekly run-through of the piece alongside his many international film projects, keeping it constantly refreshed and present. The version at the Kino was, he said, “the most crystalline it has been to date.”

I asked what made Pinter such a hero for Julian. It wasn’t just his prolific out-put, his drive to take on big political issues, even his craft and the emotional landscape which was unlike anything else that Julian had encountered when he discovered a Pinter’s work at O level and later at drama school. It was to do with the force of his intellect, which, when they met, gave him a “boot camp in performance.” It was like an Exocet missile aimed at all the familiarities which actors accrue over time and resulted in a complete realignment of his practice and technique. A kind of flame polishing.

Renowned for his fire-brand pugnacity, the delicacy and poignancy of Pinter’s poetry and its occasional humour may surprise:

I have thrown a handful of petals on your breasts.
Scarred by the daylight you lie petalstruck.

(From Daylight)

The lamps are golden.
Afternoon leans, silently.
She dances in my life.
The white day burns.

(From Paris).

Breasts, bottom, thighs, the whole palaver,
I raise my hat to my uncensored sister.
Who shone the light of love on those about her
Who lusted longest on her black suspender.

(From Poem. And he didn’t have a sister…)

At one point Julian referred to the event as “a fire in a cave”, a reference to Plato’s description of how we are like people watching the shadows thrown on a cave wall by puppets. Plato intended it as an illustration of the limits of our knowledge, but it’s also a great analogy for Julian’s performance, throwing up back-lit shards of images and memory, and for Pinter’s life. In addition to thirty-two plays, he wrote sketches, screenplays, directed plays and films, and campaigned against the abuse of human rights in Turkey (1985), against US foreign policy through the eighties and nineties, the invasion of Yugoslavia by the UN in1999, and Blair’s war against Iraq.
He was, for the fifty years of his career, a fire in our cave.

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