Tim Pigott-Smith: It's all Greek to him...

The current fad for all things Hellenic is good news for Tim Pigott-Smith. His new role in Hecuba is just one aspect of the classics bonanza, he tells Rhoda Koenig
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If the Greeks had a word for Tim Pigott-Smith, it would be their term for "large rat" or "ferret" or, if there is one, "vicious rabbit". Or so, at least, he has been described by theatre and TV critics for his portrayal of conspirators, soldiers and coppers, straight and bent - most frightening among them the poisonous Ronald Merrick in The Jewel in the Crown, a character with whom he became so identified in 1984 that, for years afterward, women would pale and cringe when he was introduced.

If the Greeks had a word for Tim Pigott-Smith, it would be their term for "large rat" or "ferret" or, if there is one, "vicious rabbit". Or so, at least, he has been described by theatre and TV critics for his portrayal of conspirators, soldiers and coppers, straight and bent - most frightening among them the poisonous Ronald Merrick in The Jewel in the Crown, a character with whom he became so identified in 1984 that, for years afterward, women would pale and cringe when he was introduced.

Years before his thrilling Cassius at the RSC in 2002, a critic noted his "lean and hungry look". In person, though, the animal that comes to mind when the trim 58-year-old strides in from a break in rehearsal for Hecuba, clad in close-fitting black, his ginger hair now sandy, is a foxhound. He briskly sniffs out the lunch waiting for him, disposes of it neatly and quickly and sits with an alert, intent but not unfriendly air. Unlike a hound, he laughs easily, somewhere between a snuffle and a giggle.

Pigott-Smith is enjoying a boom-time for the Greeks - the ancient ones, anyway. There may have been embarrassments and disasters for the hosts of the Olympics, but, in show business, the boys in the chitons are cleaning up. Iphigenia at Aulis was well received at the National; the RSC is putting on another production of Hecuba (not the most popular work by Euripides) next year, starring Vanessa Redgrave; and five movies and a mini-series about Alexander the Great wait in the wings. Pigott-Smith will appear in Oliver Stone's Alexander, to be released in November. Now he is preparing for his role as the commander of the victorious Greeks at the end of the Trojan war.

Curiously, though he had not entered the house of Atreus until last year, this is the second time he has, in a sense, played Agamemnon. The first was his portrayal of Ezra Mannon, the anguished veteran murdered on his homecoming from the American Civil War by his faithless wife, in Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra. It was an intense performance, but more attention was paid to the showier and longer parts of his wife and daughter, played splendidly by Helen Mirren and Eve Best. The storyline may have been roughly the same, but Pigott-Smith sees little connection between the characters in O'Neill's play and those in the drama of 425BC.

Mannon, he says, "having seen so much of death in the war, is anxious to get his own life right. The confession he makes to his wife, that he has failed her, is an extraordinary one for a man at that time to have made. You get the feeling that something went very wrong on their wedding night, that it was one of those Ruskin jobs - though to the other extreme, of course; probably something violent - and that the relations between them have never been put right." The Greek, on the other hand, is still steeped in blood as well as sex, his mistress the Trojan seer Cassandra. It's a touching measure of Pigott-Smith's uxoriousness (he has been married for three decades to the actress Pam Miles) that he makes an excuse for him: "Well, it's been a long time. I don't think the poor bloke had any idea when he left that he'd be away for 10 years."

At the start of the play, he says, Agamemnon is "completely knackered, mentally and physically. He's desperate to leave Troy, to go home, and then Achilles' ghost pops up and says, 'Hang on, you haven't properly honoured me.'" Before he will allow the winds to lift the sails of the Greeks, the ghost demands a final sacrifice - of the daughter of Hecuba, the captive Trojan queen (played by Clare Higgins). For Agamemnon, the situation has a dreadful echo, whose last reverberations he has not yet heard: the war began with the slaughter of his daughter Iphigenia to speed the fleet on its way, a killing that has lit the long fuse of his wife's murderous revenge. While, in the first half of the play, Agamemnon allows himself to be the instrument of fate, in the second he must judge Hecuba, who has taken justice into her own, iron-clawed hands. "I think there's a feeling that Agamemnon has no resources left to cope with these new problems," Pigott-Smith says.

Jonathan Kent's production uses a new translation by Frank McGuinness, one that is clipped and stark, especially compared with previous ones. (A sample: whereas Philip Vellacott's version of 1963 has the chorus declare, "As a man falls sideways into deep water/ And finds no foothold,/ So you will fall from the desire of your heart,/ And forfeit your life", McGuinness's says, "You will fall into the harbour,/ The cruel sea water,/ You will gain your fill of pain,/ And you will lose your heart.")

"Frank's language is very concentrated, very intense," Pigott-Smith says. "It focuses on the psychological aspect. We're going to start by doing it slowly, then faster and faster, until it's moving like a juggernaut." This production also reduces the chorus to one speaker and one singer. "Part of the reason is practical - you couldn't fit 10 or 12 Trojan women into the space at the Donmar. But, more than that, the chorus becomes a character, integrated into the play. I'm very pleased with that, because the business of 10 people speaking with one voice always feels unnatural to me. It's just not... British. Maybe, in those great Greek theatres, it was different - the chorus represented the society." Our own society may be too fragmented for such a device, but the situation of the play certainly has a contemporary application. "Yes," Pigott-Smith says, with a meaningful lift of his right eyebrow. "When you've won the war, you're faced with the problem of winning the peace." The play ends on a note of doom for Hecuba as well as Agamemnon - she will be punished for her violence by being turned into a dog, or, as Pigott-Smith puts it, with a grin, "caninisation".

In the Stone movie, Pigott-Smith plays Aristander, "a visually challenged seer. I spend a lot of time with my hands in entrails." The film required about as much planning as the original Alexander's campaigns, and a bigger budget. When Pigott-Smith showed up on his first day of shooting, in Morocco, he was confronted by 5,000 Macedonians in battle dress. He is not, though, too impressed to tease, as he demonstrates by launching into an impersonation of Stone telling him, with portentously furrowed brow, "Now, Tim, I think we should say something here about death, so can you go away and think of a line? And can we get reincarnation into it?"

If the Greeks have been providing Pigott-Smith with employment, the state of the theatre has been causing him many misgivings. "I used to think the actor's job was immersing himself completely in another personality. But people's perceptions of acting have changed phenomenally in the past 10 years - our society has changed. The 'reality' shows on television, the internet, these things" - he holds up his mobile phone - "have encouraged people to behave with less and less restraint. We are broadcasting our emotions in public in a way that has never happened before. There's almost a feeling that something hasn't happened if it happens only in private, and that what an actor portrays isn't significant because it isn't 'real'. This makes the role of the theatre, as a place where private emotions are exposed to public view, very hard.

"There's a lot of talk now about the West End being in crisis. It is, but that's not its problem. It's society that's in crisis. When I grew up, in the time of Look Back in Anger, the theatre was very exciting, a place where you felt that social comment could lead to social change. Now, with the emphasis on self, that's not a concern. You often hear the complaint these days that young actors don't project, that they can't be heard at the back of the house. Well, that's true, but I don't blame them - and not just because their acting-teachers haven't taught them. Nothing in their society gives them the desire to reach the back."

It is time for Pigott-Smith to get back to work, which today will entail feeling out Paul Brown's steeply raked set. "We are very exposed on it. It represents the hills rolling down to the sea, which will be a ring of water." He smiles. "I may well be washing my hands in it, Pilate-like. You get the sense that it's a very feminine space, which has been invaded by these creepy men."

The description irresistibly provokes a reminder of a recently constructed and particularly ill-fated ring of water. "Oh, no!" Pigott-Smith cries, laughing and raising his hands to ward off further malignant spirits from a play that is amply supplied with them. "That's all we need - the curse of the House of Windsor!"

'Hecuba', Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (0870 060 6624) till 1 November

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