Derek Jacobi: a special kind of Hamlet in the BBC's Shakespeare Plays
'Tis a pity Hamlet never got to be king. That's not Shakespeare speaking, but Derek Jacobi, the actor who plays the melancholy Dane (I promised myself I wouldn't use that hackneyed phrase but here i am utilizing it already) in the new BBC "Shakespeare Plays" production (Monday , 8-11:30 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats).
"He would have mada a fine monarch," mr. Jacobi told me the other day. "According to Ophelia, before Hamlet went mad, he was a true Renaissance prince who probably would have made a wonderful king. . . ."
Mr. Jacobi, pronounced JackOby, with the accent on the Jack, ("My great grandfather was German") speaks about Shakespearean characters as if they were living, breathing people today.
"It is one of the inconsistencies of 'Hamlet' that the monarchy is an elected one . . . and wouldn't necessarily have passed from father to son. Claudius was elected by council. Claudius ism the people. If the people liked Hamlet the people would vote for Hamlet. So it wouldn't necessarily follow that on his father's death Hamlet would become king. Claudius got in ther first while Hamlet was still at school at Wittenburg. Claidius was already counting the votes. But I do think Hamlet would have done rather well if he had evere made king."
Mr. Jacobi is, at present, playing the lead in "The Suicide," an anti-establishment (especially the Soviet establishment) play written by Nikolai Erdman in Russian in the 1920s, supressed there and only now being rediscovered and produced all over the world. But Mr. Jacobi claims he is nonpolitical, quite satisfied with the British monarchy.
"At the moment it is riding particularly high, isn't it?" he says uneasily. "I think Prince Charles is a good idea, enormously popular. The worry is that what happened to Edeward VII will happen to Charles -- Elizabeth may reign so long that he'll be an old man by the time he becomes king.
"I suppose if I am anything political, I am right wing. I vote for Margaret Thatcher. i'm not committed to either side but I veer toward the right. I would hate to live in a real socialist state, however. 'The Suicide' is giving me an awful taste of what it must be like . . . always observed, always having to conform to somebody else's philosophy of life. But here I am getting political. . .," he interrupts himself.
So, back to Hamlet, where Mr. Jacobi feels more at ease. He says there are all kinds of Hamlets -- political, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, physical, psychological. But they can't all be done simultaneously, he believes. An actor must choose one area for emphasis. Which has Derek Jacobi chosen?
The answer is self-explanatory when one has seen his BBC Hamlet -- Jacobi has made him a repressed, emotionally disturbed Hamlet, a Hamlet who explodes into frenzy whenever his control slips a bit.
"Really, it is the personality of the actor playing the role which is the determining factor. You don't actually have to play the character, you play the situation in which Hamlet finds himself and your own personality, your own outlook, takes over. That's why the part is played differently by so many different actors, all doing perfectly valid interpretations. Hamlet is universal man, he is all of us.
"I've found that I put myself as a person in hamlet's situation and, rather than acting, I have reacted."
Mr. Jacobi seems a bit disturbed about his own explanation. "But I find analyzing him more difficult than playing him. I am an instinctive actor. I could much more easily get up now and demonstrate it for you than find the right words to explain what i do."
All of this spoken quietly, gently, although Mr. Jacobi's onstage Hamlet is disturbed, emotional.
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.