The fiercely intelligent, emotionally concentrated John Shrapnel roamed freely across stage, screen and radio with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, in the West End and at regional theatres in a career spanning six decades.
Born in Birmingham to a journalist father who later became the Guardian’s parliamentary correspondent, he was distantly related to Henry Shrapnel, inventor of a lethal artillery shell.
There was something combustible and dangerous about Shrapnel himself in performance, a quality first noted by The Stage for his “hot-blooded” Laertes (Hamlet) with Michael Croft’s Youth Theatre in 1959.
He began acting at school, became a stalwart of Cambridge University student drama and, after a dalliance as a would-be writer, began his professional career with him joining Birmingham Rep in 1964.
A spell at Nottingham Playhouse led to his joining the RSC in 1968, where he caught attention as Charles (As You Like It) and Patroclus (Troilus and Cressida).
With Prospect Theatre in 1971 he delivered a sturdy, intelligent Edgar alongside Timothy West’s King Lear and the following year made his National Theatre debut as Mowbray to Ronald Pickup’s Richard II. There he made his first of several appearances in Jonathan Miller productions as Charles Surface in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal in 1972. Others included Andrey (Three Sisters, Cambridge Theatre, 1976) and Claudius to Anton Lesser’s Hamlet (Donmar Warehouse, 1982).
The National was also host to one of his finest performances, playing Pentheus in Wole Soyinka’s version of The Bacchae in 1973.
Notable roles with the RSC included a choleric Vaguin in Gorky’s The Children of the Sun (1979), a powerful Agamemnon alongside Janet Suzman’s Clytemnestra in The Greeks (1980) and an intensely neurotic Dr Foustka in Vaclav Havel’s Temptation in 1987.
Even more searing was Shrapnel’s compelling Oedipus in Ted Hughes’ 1988 adaptation of Sophocles and his autocratic, manipulative Creon (The Theban Trilogy) and terrifying Azriel in Solomon Anski’s The Dybbuk
In the West End, he was seen as a colourful, commanding Dangerfield in JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (Shaw Theatre, 1976), Tesman to Suzman’s Hedda Gabler (Duke of York’s Theatre, 1977) and in Harold Pinter’s A Kind of Alaska (Haymarket Theatre, 1990).
He proved himself more than capable of taking on titular Shakespeare roles, his Timon of Athens at the Bristol New Vic (1979) a magnificent portrait, his Julius Caesar for Deborah Warner at the Barbican (2005) martially forceful and his King Lear at the Tobacco Factory (2012) angry, desolate and moving.
More recently, he was Duncan to Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth (Manchester International Festival, 2013) and doubled as Claudius and the Ghost alongside Maxine Peake’s Hamlet (Royal Exchange Manchester, 2014).
In 2015, he appeared opposite his son, Lex, in Caryl Churchill’s two-hander A Number at the Young Vic and as Camillo in Branagh’s The Winter’s Tale at the Garrick Theatre.
Among his more than 120 screen credits were an admired Schoner in DH Lawrence’s The Prussian Officer (1967), the Earl of Sussex to Glenda Jackson’s Elizabeth R (1971) and Kent to Michael Hordern’s King Lear in the BBC Shakespeare cycle (1982) on television. Prominent film appearances included Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), Notting Hill (1999) and Gladiator (2000).
John Morley Shrapnel was born on April 27, 1942, and died on February 14, aged 77. He is survived by his wife and three sons: actor Lex, screenwriter Joe and writer-director Tom.