Tim Pigott-Smith (left) and Richard O'Callaghan as King Lear and the Fool in Ian Brown's new production
When I read that Tim Pigott-Smith had been cast as the wandering monarch in King Lear, it seemed a bit of a diminuendo. Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen have set the bar high recently and Pigott-Smith, despite a starring part in Enron and a previous life as a Bond villain didn't seem to be in the same league.
Ian Brown's faith is however fully vindicated in a disturbing, pacy production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds. We begin on a slanted stage, which puts the cast and the grandeur of the kingdom at an awkward tipping point from the first scene. Pigott-Smith hobbles on in regal red, a slight crown already slipping down greasy grey hair. He slumps and grimaces like a man anticipating decline, Cordelia promptly banished with a viciousnessness that hints at an appetite for random cruelty, as much as dementia.
Here is an unlikeable Lear who doesn't look as if he ever much liked his daughters, or at least not within the bonds of propriety. Yet as fate turns against him, Pigott-Smith captures the ferocity and draining pathos of the role, eyes darting between self-knowledge and racked despair as he is cast down.