Malkovich and Pinter: an unlikely alliance

Actor to direct celebration of playwright's life despite contrasting world views

A celebration of the life of the late Sir Harold Pinter – doyen of the metropolitan left-leaning chattering class and a vitriolic critic of Israel and serial opponent of American imperialism – is to be directed at this year's Edinburgh Fringe by his political nemesis, John Malkovich.

While the British Nobel Laureate was campaigning against President Bush's policies in the Middle East the outspoken US actor became a Neo-Con pin-up. A committed supporter of the death penalty Malkovich made headlines in Britain when he offered – jokingly, he later insisted – to "shoot" The Independent's Robert Fisk and MP George Galloway over their opposition to the Iraq war.

But despite the ideological gulf between them, Malkovich is set to direct British actor Julian Sands in a month-long homage to the late playwright's life and work at this summer's festival before taking the play on a short tour of the UK.

A Celebration of Harold Pinter will be based on a selection of Pinter's writings and poems but also on Sands' experiences and anecdotes from working alongside him when he stood in for the ailing laureate at a reading shortly before his death in 2008.

Sands said Malkovich and Pinter knew and liked each other well in the 1990s despite their obvious differences. "John is far more nuanced and circumspect in his views than is popularly thought. A person is not defined by their political views but there is a richness and a depth to John's thinking that makes the idea of conversation between him and Harold very compelling," he said.

"Their meetings would have been mutually admiring and candid. John was very, very fascinated by Harold's plays, and finds his use of language second to none. I think John has a reasonable view of anybody who holds a view which they are passionate about even if it runs contrary to his own.

"To my knowledge they never discussed Israel and I can only conjecture if they had what that conversation would have been," Sands, who appeared alongside Malkovich in The Killing Fields, said.

Malkovich performed and directed a number of Pinter plays including The Caretaker when he was part of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

In 2008, Malkovich accepted an achievement award in Israel. Prior to this he was famously described by one co-star as "so right wing you have to wonder if he's kidding".

Pinter meanwhile remained avowedly on the left. Shortly before his death he signed a letter along with other prominent Jews refusing to mark Israel's 60th birthday. "We cannot celebrate the birthday of a state founded on terrorism, massacres and the dispossession of another people from their land," it said. He also called George W Bush "a mass murderer" and his administration "a bunch of criminal lunatics".

Malkovich and Sands promise to be the biggest Hollywood draw of the festival since Christian Slater's 2004 appearance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. This year's Fringe boasts record numbers of performances.

The line-up comprises 2,542 shows staged by about 21,000 performers at what has become the world's largest arts festival. Also featuring will be street dance group Flawless, from Britain's Got Talent in 2009.