Currently in rehearsals at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, King Lear, directed by the theatre’s artistic director, Ian Brown, boasts an impressive cast that includes Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role and Sam Crane as Edgar. Hailed as one of the country’s most exciting young actors, Sam has a varied CV of both stage and screen credits that include Henry IV Part I & II and Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe. He took time out to discuss the enduring appeal of the Bard and why King Lear is possibly his greatest play.
With opening night just around the corner, how are rehearsals going?
They’re going very well. It’s a huge play and there’s loads to do, but it’s coming together really well. I’ve had a little look in the space and it’s a really good place to do King Lear. It’s big, but it’s got a feeling you can be intimate in there as well.
What attracted you to King Lear, and, specifically, to the role of Edgar?
It’s always been probably my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays. I think it’s extraordinary. It’s seen as Shakespeare’s greatest play and the acme of British culture, but it’s such as strange play; so surprising and bold. Also it’s a very strong story and right from the beginning you get thrown into it. My character, Edgar, takes on all these different personas and characterisations throughout the play, which he bases on observations of humanity and particular people. He’s quite like an actor, actually, and it’s very interesting to play that sort of part.
For audiences who maybe haven’t seen Shakespeare on stage before, would you say King Lear, is one of his more accessible plays?
Very much so. It’s strange, but it’s also a very strong story and you get into it right from the very beginning. We did a run of the first half the other day and it is absolutely gripping, right from the first moment, and all the characters in it are very well drawn. There are all these contrasting energies and contrasting ambitions. It’s not just King Lear; the sisters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, as well as Edgar and Edmund, are all fascinating in their different ways. There aren’t any small, insignificant characters.
Why do you think Shakespeare is still relevant to a modern audience?
I don’t know, but it’s true that he is because people always go and see it and get a lot out of it. He writes characters that people recognise, that people seem to like and revere and find funny. The extraordinary thing about him is that he wrote such a range of different people and brought them to life so excitingly. Plus a lot of the things they went through in those days we’re still going through today.
Do you find that you’ve developed a preference for the classics, or is variety important?
A certain amount of variety. The old adage that you should treat doing a classic as a new play and treat doing a new play as a classic; I think there’s some truth to that. When I start a job I don’t think ‘right, this is Shakespeare so I’ll get my Shakespeare hat on now, or this is a new play, I’ll get my new writing hat on’. It comes from the same starting point; you look at the text or the clues the writer gives you and take whatever’s useful from your own experiences and imagination and try and create something that’s exciting and real and fun; whether it’s new writing or Shakespeare. I’ve done a fair bit of Shakespeare recently and what’s great about it is that these characters are so well drawn and there’s so much depth to them. He’s a really top quality writer; that’s why I like doing Shakespeare plays, not because it’s considered classic, just because he writes great characters. As long as it’s interesting and something to get hold of then I want to do it.
So, are there any roles you harbour a particular ambition to play?
Years ago I remember seeing Richard II at the Globe and I think that’s such an extraordinary play. I’m sure I could never touch what Mark Rylance did with it, but maybe one day I’d like to give that a go.
On a personal note, given that your parents, playwright Richard Crane and theatre director Faynia Williams, are in the industry, was this something you always felt drawn to?
It wasn’t such a difficult choice as maybe it is for someone who grew up in a more normal family. It was more accessible to me in that way. It seemed like a way of life; something I was surrounded with.
And finally, what can Leeds audiences expect from King Lear?
They can expect a very exciting story that deals with fundamental issues. I don’t mean that to sound too heavy, because it’s not. You’ll be swept along with the story and you’ll see a fascinating cast of good and evil characters battling it out. It’s got to be one of the greatest stories there is.
King Lear is on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 23 September to 22 October 2011. For tickets, contact the box office on 0113 2137700 or visit www.wyp.org.uk.