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Derek Jacobi: a special kind of Hamlet in the BBC's Shakespeare Plays

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All of this spoken quietly, gently, although Mr. Jacobi's onstage Hamlet is disturbed, emotional.

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Mr. Jacobi has played the role often. He has done a rather innovative Hamlet with Old Vic (the famous 'To be or not to be' soliloquy was spoken to Ophelia, and there was a much more physically incestuous relationship with Gertrude). The current TV Hamlet is more traditional, except for symbolic sets in many instances. In 1977, Mr. Jacobi toured England with the unorthodox Hamlet, then played the Old Vic in London, and finally took it on tour in the Middle East. It was revived in 1979, when it was taken to China.

Audiences in China, according to Mr. Jacobi, reacted strangely. "It was shown with five Chinese actors translating simultaneously. The Chinese enjoyed Hamlet enormously their own noisy way. They chatted amongst themselves, ate food. It wasn't that they didn't like it or were restless. It's just eh way they behave in the theater. At first we were apprehensive, but then we got used to it and enjoyed it as much as they did."

Derek Jacobi has been in New York only once before -- to promote his "richard II" in the PBS series. American audiences know him best for that -- as well as for title his role in "I Claudius."

Some American critics, including this one, have found "The Suicide" to be the most important play of the season and mr. jacobi's performance perhaps the peformance of the season, but the play has not yet found its audiences and it is by no means certain that it will have a long run. "I am hoping " he says."Word of mouth is good It would be nice to stay for a while in new York. It's a bit like London, where he was born and bred. (He went on to Cambridge, where he started his acting career in school productions).

The "nonpolitical Mr. Jacobi" claims to find himself a bit uncomfortable in a play so politically controversial. "I think it is anti- anym state pressure rather than anti-communist," he insists. "The playwright wrote this play in 1929 and when it was in dress rrhearsal in 1932 Stalin's censors said it couldn't go on. The author then disappeared for 10 years, reappeared, and died in 1970 without ever writing another work. And he never revealed where he was during the years he disappeared. I find that shocking, frigtening."

Have there been any political repercussions for Mr. Jacobi? After all, it is a powerful, if entertaining, attack on the restraints on individual freedom in any socialist state.

"No. Only one night outside the stage door a lady told me she'd enjoyed my performance but disagreed with the idea of putting the play on at a time when we need detente with the Russians."

What next for Derek Jacobi?

"I would prefer to do more theather. Lear, in particular. Lots of Shakespearean roles -- but not onlym Shakespeare. however, I suppose i should do cinema, too. You know, theater has always been the poor relation in England as far as wages are concerned. Nobody has ever gotten rich acting in the theater there. Television is sort of the halfway house. The big money is in movies, of course. Maybe I'll do a movie soon."

Derek Jacobi has done "Twelfth Night" in Russia as well as "Hamlet" in China -- does he have any plan to bring other classics to communist countries?

He smiles a wry smile. "How about "The Suicide" in Russia?"

If Derek Jacobi is nonpolitical, he's slyly, wisely nonpolitical.