Highgate’s versatile Mr Pigott-Smith

The veteran actor can turn his hand to any role as his latest parts in Lear and in an Edward Albee play testify

HIGHGATE actor Tim Pigott-Smith is enjoying a great career streak. Ever since he brilliantly imbued racist Ronald Merrick with an arresting flawed humanity in Jewel in the Crown, he’s been the go-to man to play interesting bad guys.

Thus he and his gimlet stare have graced our screens in The Vice, The Chief and Bloody Sunday.

And last year he could be seen in the West End playing ruthless Enron boss Kenneth Lay in Lucy Prebble’s hit play of the same name.

But there is far more to the 64-year-old than his stint as a black-gloved sadist.

A respected Shakespearean actor, his other recent roles have included a hit revival of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, playing likeable sozzled academic Frank. And in September, he will scale the acting mountain that is King Lear at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

For now, though, Pigott-Smith is among a stellar cast at Islington’s Almeida Theatre in Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Delicate Balance.

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He plays affluent surburbanite Tobias, caught in the vicious crossfire between his wife Agnes (played by Penelope Wilton) and her alcoholic sister Claire. (Imelda Staunton)

Also shattering the deceptive calm of their middle-class drawing room are two friends fleeing a nameless terror, and their grown-up daughter on the run from her failed fourth marriage.

Although less explosive than Albee’s better known drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the 1966 play crackles with claustrophobic tension and fragmentary, tightly honed dialogue.

“It’s a tricky one,” says Pigott-Smith speaking after a hard day’s rehearsal.

“You have to stay on the ball all the time, not so much physically but mentally. The dialogue is very sharp, articulate and epigrammatic. It’s fencing at a very high level.

“The language is also parenthetic with lots of dot, dot dots where people are seeking to define the precision of each thought, but it’s wonderful stuff and our job is to make the audience see these people as credible characters going through a dark night of the soul.”

Pigott-Smith describes the play as “wickedly funny but also ghastly” in that it evokes the terror of life’s meaninglessness, with characters who have allowed laziness, complacence and indecision to take over from passion, meaning and feeling.

Tobias’ role is to vainly defuse the simmering tension between his wife and her difficult alcoholic sister.

“She comes to the table drunk. It’s lethal. Then the daughter arrives a complete wreck. One of the balances that’s sustained in the play is the balance Tobias maintains between the two sisters, he is living in a war zone. The two of them won’t stop, they ignore him and carry on being vile to each other.”

As an only child, Pigott-Smith doesn’t personally understand the sisters’ bitter sibling rivalry, but he says if the actors get it right it should be “strangely spooky and disturbing”.

“It won’t be what fans of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are expecting. That play ends with the feeling they have come through the dark night of the soul and something has been purged. That doesn’t happen here and I suspect by the time you get to the end of this play you will feel extremely unsettled by the utter meaningless of life.”

Pigott-Smith, who last appeared at the Almeida in an acclaimed production of The Iceman Cometh starring Kevin Spacey, says he thoroughly enjoyed his lengthy stint in Enron, which dealt with the global financial crisis just as it hit British shores.

“People really came to see that play because they were interested to see something that was about what was going on in their world at that moment. It brilliantly explained quite complex technical notions about how Enron was really funded and implicated the audience in the greed that fuelled it. There is nothing more exciting than debating people’s current lives with an audience.”

As for Lear – often described as the veteran actors’ Hamlet – Pigott-Smith has been working on the part since last year.

“I am of an age where if I don’t do Lear in another five years I won’t have the strength to do it. It’s big demanding stuff physically and psychologically and it’s terrifying because you look at it and think ‘how many times have I seen it work on stage for a start?’

“But it’s also thrilling because if you reach a point in life where you think you know what the solutions are, you are in the wrong job.

The wonder of this job is you constantly discover new things, every play is a new adventure and you learn something, and build up your toolkit.”

Although he has abiding memories of Paul Scofield’s 1962 Lear– which he saw five times – Pigott-Smith says any actor has to focus on their production, rather than the ghosts of Lears past.

“Those thoughts can affect you before you get started but the deeper you get into the world of your production the less it becomes a problem.”

His own early take on the part is to imagine the English king in “a large babygro wearing a crown of herbs”.

“That captures the quality of madness and his pure childish rage with an ungrateful world.” But how hard will it be for Pigott-Smith to conjure sheer anger for the part. “Oh quite easily,” he chuckles affably.

“I’ve got a horrible temper.”

o A Delicate Balance runs at The Almeida Theatre until July 2.