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Rediscovering Harold Pinter in his own words — and ‘The Birthday Party’

Julian Sands | GETTY IMAGES

Julian Sands | GETTY IMAGES

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Updated: February 27, 2013 5:38PM

It’s all things Harold Pinter as “The Birthday Party” continues its run through April 28 at Steppenwolf Theatre’s Upstairs theater.

The dark tale of a group of inhabitants at a seaside boarding house in England whose worlds unravel when a birthday party is invaded by two menacing thugs with an agenda all their own is considered Pinter’s first full-length work — a work that despite accolades, was initially panned when it premiered in London in 1958. Fifty years later, it holds its own alongside Pinter classics such as “The Homecoming,” “Betrayal,” “The Room” and “The Caretaker.”

But what of the playwright and Nobel Laureate (who died in 2008 after a long battle with cancer)? Can he be truly defined solely by his dramatic works?

Veteran actor Julian Sands doesn’t think so. To wit, he recently presented his one-man “recital” — “A Celebration of Harold Pinter,” (directed by John Malkovich) — at Steppenwolf. In that show, Sands, who became friends with the playwright toward the end of his life, turns to Pinter’s poetry (as well as his political prose, personl anecdotes, conversations, letters and other published accounts) to paint a portrait of a playwright perhaps not so familiar to most of us.

Sands, known for films such as “A Room with a View,” “The Killing Fields” and “Ocean’s Thirteen” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” recently talked to the Sun-Times about the multi-faceted playwright and poet.

What it was like to be friends with Harold Pinter: “Being with Harold wasn’t always easy. It’s rather like having a bird of prey in the room — you don’t want to catch its eye, but you don’t want to have your back to it either.”

What we learn about Pinter from his dramas: “He reveals himself through the plays of course, but the author’s voice is more often than not quite oblique in this sense. It would be very hard to have a true idea of what an author thinks and feels about the world solely through his plays. That’s not true of every author. For some authors, their voice is much more revealed in their writing via prose or drama. But Pinter’s personality is particularly oblique in his drama.”

What we learn about Pinter from hearing his poetry: “If you hear the poetry or read it, you realize what a romantic, loving, complex man [Pinter] was. He was full of humanity and intelligence and wit.”

The biggest misconception about Pinter: “He is seen as a dark figure politically; opinionated, and singularly unfunny in his personality. That’s how he’s perceived. But the breadth of his personality is far more encompassing. He’s a political animal, born and bread, but the depth and range of his political thinking is far more interesting and persuasive.

What he misses the most about Pinter: “His unequivocal use of words. He never wasted words. He was incapable of using language in a woolly way. There was no small talk. Everything he said was very precise and a very accurate expression of his thoughts. The intention of his language was absolutely clear expression of his thinking. I think that clarity, that purpose was very compelling.”

Pinter’s greatest passion: “I think it was writing. I think his second-greatest passion was Antonia [his mistress and then wife, Lady Antonia Fraser] and his third-greatest was cricket.”

Pinter’s definition of love: “I’m not him, but I think if he expressed his definition of love in his writing. The joy came through. Especially in the poems.”

♦“The Birthday Party,” Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets, $20–$78;

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