Harold Pinter, Julian Sands, and Cricket

Had I met him, I like the thought that Harold Pinter and I would have had a fair bit to discuss.

I say this after watching Julian Sands in a lovely appreciation of the playwright and Nobel laureate at the Irish Repertory Theater this evening. Sands speaks movingly about his friend and, in effect, playwright over the course of 90 minutes in which he recites various poems that Pinter wrote over the years. The poetry verges from the political (“Bombs”, or “After Lunch”, for instance) to Cricket (“I saw Len Hutton in his prime/Another time/another time” was the extent of one – apparently Simon Gray told Pinter that he hadn’t finished the poem some months after receiving it) to love, most beautifully. Pinter’s last poem, “For A” was most moving of the lot in my view. I can’t find it online, but it is good, and if you chance upon it, you should read it. Selections of Pinter’s poems are available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2008/dec/26/pinter-poetry and http://www.haroldpinter.org/poetry/index.shtml.

Pinter and I would have had Cricket in common. Ed Smith (who earns my jealousy, as I suspect he once did Pinter’s, for being a gifted writer and someone with a Test cap) writes about Pinter’s love for the game here. In New York, without a cable connection and working the hours expected of you in professions, one feels a little bit divorced from Test Cricket. The mentions this evening were a pleasant suprise. I fancy that Pinter’s love for Leonard Hutton – bloody-minded, one leg shorter than the other post-war, massive run accumulator, but perhaps less beloved of the masses than Denis Compton and the classes than Peter May – was a lot like the affection I felt, and still feel, for Rahul Dravid – often unheralded, always in Tendulkar’s (and sometimes in Ganguly’s or Laxman’s) shadow – as a player. Julian Sands also talks about Pinter, dying of cancer, being electrified by a Test match and pulsing in his very sinews despite slumping in his chair moments earlier. My grandfather was a little like that: oblivious to the world when Gavaskar was batting, living in Bombay and knowing little of New Zealand and how life was there but acutely aware of Pukekura Park’s beauty. As Smith writes, Pinter knew that Cricket was about conservatism but also about character of every sort. He probably would have enjoyed the irony that Kevin Pietersen could offend the establishment at one moment and be the side’s hero barely a month later, tattoos, South African accent, and all. The game allows for these contrasts. A working class Jewish boy from London’s East End would have understood this, and so embraced Yorkshire Cricket – dull, laconic, with bursts of dry wit – that one of his most famous characters in one of his best known plays was named after Wilfred Rhodes – a source of great wit even when old and blind – and his friend in the play after Rhodes’s great rival and teammate, George Hirst.

Hirst and Rhodes

Pinter and I would probably have shared an enjoyment in provoking people. Sands’s performance is replete with tales of Pinter saying things for a reaction: it marked his first meeting with his wife, for example. (He also had the good taste to choose a Tudor-era biographer for a wife for the best part of his life.) It’s an instinct that you have to curb a bit if you want to get along with people I think, but Pinter had no such qualms. Sands at one point called him “the most visible man you’ll ever see”, and there’s something to that. There’s a certain joy to being contrary for its own sake, in order to get people to think and react and even react in abuse. There’s also a risk of becoming a palimpsest for the cause. (As with Owen Wilson in Wedding Crashers, you might wind up not knowing whether you’re full of shit 50% of the time or all of it any more.) In Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie reprints correspondence with Pinter after he was particularly horrible to another guest at a dinner party, simply because the guest worked for a publication that Pinter detested. To his credit, Pinter duly apologised. I think that’s the trick to retaining your humanity, and to knowing which people will stick. The friendships that last are the ones that have fights and overcome them, rather than avoiding sensitive topics for fear of causing offence. I think Pinter knew this. I’m starting to learn it, even if there are times when muzzling yourself is necessary.

Sands is an engaging actor with a voice and accent that’s not unlike Pinter’s was. It takes some skill to be so talented and yet let the text speak for itself, and the actor manages this. Sadly the show only runs for another two nights in Manhattan, both sold out, but the appreciation is worth seeing if it runs again or shows near you. In the meantime, watch Sands talk about it on Charlie Rose, and read some Pinter, or at least watch his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. (Sands also talks about his own performance in the film of “The Room”, of which he’s quite proud.)

This adulatory post says little about the plays and how thoroughly Pinter dominated the theatre in post-war England (although he himself would credit Becket with having done more, per Sands), or the forceful liberal bent of his literature. I’m still trying to figure out what I make of Pinter’s oeuvre, so am slightly frightened to write too much about his work. For now, suffice it to say that his plays make me think, just as Sands did this evening, and Rahul Dravid always did.

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