THOUGH not exactly languishing in the shadows, Sam Crane is definitely second billing in this Shakespearean masterpiece.
Which is odd since, under normal circumstances, he’d be considered something of a star signing for the Playhouse. But in the latest version of King Lear that title goes to lead man, Tim Piggot-Smith.
He may be something of a veteran actor but Crane is considered to be an actor in the ascent.
Last year he featured in the BBC drama series Desperate Romantics as Fred Walters, patron of the 19th Century brotherhood of Pre-Raphaelites artists desperate to bring their unique art to the masses.
Prior to that he’d notched up several gigs most twenty-something actors would give their right arm for, appearing at the National Theatre and The Globe tackling modern plays and Bard classics.
Now 31, he’s well and truly arrived, and yet despite gaining increasing attention he obviously feels slightly awkward in interviews.
He says: “I did one interview on the phone the other day – which makes it instantly awkward anyway – and when I eventually did get on a roll about King Lear, I started talking for about five minutes and realised I’d been cut off, so I’d been sitting there talking to myself for ages.”
No matter, Crane has garnered all the credibility he needs as an actor and, at the age of 27, was named by New York Magazine as one of London’s hottest young actors.
Sitting in the Playhouse cafe – using his leftover bread crusts to scoop up stray egg mayonnaise from a lunchtime sandwich – the hot young actor looks even more awkward when this is mentioned.
“All these magazine lists are a bit silly really,” he says. “They’re quite helpful in terms of people seeing your face and remembering you, but they’re fairly arbitrary and they’re just part of the business, you know.
“It was all part of having done stuff that got quite a lot of attention at the time. I guess I’d earned my stripes to get myself in a list like that, to a certain extent, but then lots of actors earn their stripes and don’t necessarily get the exposure they deserve.”
Awkwardness aside, it’s obvious that Crane is not only a capable actor but a serious one.
Moving from the frippery of fame to the deeper business of King Lear he instantly becomes assertive and comfortable.
“It’s a very challenging play,” he says. “And it’s a strange play dealing with such extremes. What it has is a very strong story and fascinating characters.
“The story really goes at a lick and you’re straight in there from the beginning. As it goes on it examines the whole human condition from families to madness to old age, things which have always been, and always will be, a big deal for us humans.”
That sentiment is echoed by the man taking on the role of King Lear. From the moment he agreed to head up the cast, Tim Piggot-Smith compared the prospect to climbing a mountain.
“If you continue that metaphor Tim’s like the lead mountaineer and the rest of the cast are like Sherpas helping him up,” says Crane. “We’re all in this together because it’s absolutely a team effort. But, ultimately, he’s the one that has to go through so much.
“Tim’s a fantastic actor and a lovely man, but what’s truly amazing is that he’s not just focusing on his own part but the play as a whole.
“Someone of his experience can give you suggestions without forcing it on you.
“He’ll say ‘maybe this might help...’ and he gives the advice in such a way that it feels helpful rather than domineering. And he’s always coming up with little ideas which is amazingly generous because he already has enough to think about with his own part.”
Crane appears in King Lear as Edgar, one of the sons of the Duke of Gloucester. Their relationship forms a sub-plot which heightens the maelstrom of tumult characterising this tragedy.
His character is essentially one of the few balanced figures in the narrative, and although it’s not always been the case (“I have played one or two b******s before”, he points out) it’s easy to see why Crane was suited to the part of the solitary good guy.
“The whole plot of Gloucester and his sons is to set a counterpoint to Lear and his daughters.” says Crane. “And in this world it’s quite grim. Terrible things seem to happen.
“It’s not like good prevails and evil doesn’t but Edgar is keen that there should be some kind of natural justice in this world. He tries to shape the world into his way of thinking.
“There’s one scene where he meets his father again when he’s in a state of absolute despair and wants to kill himself, so Edgar essentially conjures up a world where miracles can happen – but he’s actually having to create all this in his head, so strongly does he want it to be true.
“Ultimately though he comes to realise that this world’s not all good or evil, it’s just chaos.”
Early reviews indicate that the Playhouse’s Lear is destined to be a hit, and a further profile-raiser for Crane. But will we be seeing him back on our TV screens any time soon?
“I really don’t know,” he says. “I’ve got a couple of projects in the pipeline I can’t really talk about yet I’m afraid.
“I don’t think they’ll be making a second series of Desperate Romantics though, the way these things work they’d probably have commissioned another series by now if they were going to.
“My focus really is theatre, but I did enjoy doing TV, I liked the subtlety of working on the small screen, but you don’t get nearly as much rehearsal time and it isn’t anywhere near as collaborative a process as the theatre is.
“Having said that I would definitely do TV again – the experience hasn’t put me off.”
King Lear - Until Oct 22, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Hill, Leeds, 7.15pm, mats 1.30pm, £13 to £27, Tel: 0113 2137700 www.wyp.org.uk