Actors in Pinter play lead tributes to legend

'No Man's Land' cast honour writer who railed against oppression

Actors in the current production of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land yesterday led tributes to the legendary playwright, actor and activist.

Michael Gambon, David Walliams, Nick Dunning and David Bradley led a minute's silence at the Duke of York theatre in St Martin's Lane, London, where the first performance of a work by Pinter since his death was watched by 650 people. The Nobel Prize winner died on Wednesday aged 78 after a long battle with cancer.

"I'm very honoured to have known him personally and professionally over the past 10 years. It's a huge loss," Bradley said yesterday morning. "People from Germany, Israel and China would come backstage saying Harold Pinter was so important to them. He wrote about oppression and people taking terrible advantage and oppressing each other on a personal level. Although he did not write the plays in an overtly political way they stood the test of time because they have universal themes. They meant so much to people in different ways."

The playwright Michael Frayn said: "He did two really wonderful things politically. He went to Turkey and protested against the arrest of the writers there. It's a very difficult thing to do: it takes a lot of moral courage to actually go to somebody's country and give them a blasting for their policies. The other thing was his Nobel acceptance speech, which was remarkable and had a huge impact."

Pinter wrote more than 30 plays, as well as award-winning screenplays, poetry, and polemical prose. His most celebrated plays include The Homecoming, The Caretaker and Betrayal, which was based on his seven-year affair with the television presenter and journalist Joan Bakewell. Screenplays for the big screen included his Bafta-winning adaptations of L P Hartley's novel The Go-Between (1972) and John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981).

The writer's marriage to Lady Antonia Fraser, the daughter of a Labour peer and the former wife of a Conservative MP, is credited with fuelling the political activism for which his later work and public life was renowned. A 46-minute acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, delivered by video link in a husky voice at a time when he was struggling with throat cancer, was an undiluted tirade against American foreign policy under George Bush.

Pinter joined other artists, including Ken Loach and the pop band Blur, in sending a letter to Downing Street opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Born into a Jewish family in pre-war Hackney nine years before the outbreak of war, his grandparents had fled persecution in Poland and Odessa. He refused National Service in 1948 as a conscientious objector, and joined Anew McMaster's Shakespearean Irish touring company in 1951.

Made a CBE in 1966, when he was 36, and awarded the Austrian State Prize for European Literature in 1973 and the David Cohen British Literature Prize in 1995, he also received a plethora of honorary degrees.

Tony Benn, the former Labour MP, called Pinter "a great playwright and a great figure on the political scene". He added: "His death will leave a huge gap that will be felt by the whole political spectrum."

His agent said yesterday that a private funeral will be followed by a memorial service open to the public.