Αρχείο για 13 Δεκεμβρίου, 2010

  • Derek Jacobi talks candidly about young love, old friends, and why he feels ready for Shakespeare’s mad monarch
  • Carole Cadwalladr
  • Derek Jacobi
    Derek Jacobi, photographed at the Jerwood Space rehearsal rooms in London. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

    For at least a decade and a half, interviewers have been asking Derek Jacobi when he’ll play King Lear. It’s the role that has been looming over him like, well, like old age itself. And for the last decade and a half, he’s been replying that he’ll do it when he feels old enough. That he needs to be ready. That he’s prepared to wait. Despite the pressure on him, or maybe because of it. Because for years Jacobi was Hamlet. He played the role more than 400 times – with the National Youth Theatre, the RSC, at Kronberg castle in Elsinore, on the BBC – and, in some critics’ eyes, he was the greatest Hamlet of all. He hasn’t played him for years of course, it’s a young man’s role, and it’s been a long three-decade wait for him to tackle the other Shakespearean colossus: the elderly king who gives away his throne.

    But finally, at the age of 72, he’s ready. For what is not just another role. It is, inevitably, a milestone; a life marker; the entry point into what he calls «the fifth act» of his life.

    «It is, yes. If you’ve got ambitions to do the classics, you jump the Hamlet hoop. And then when you’re old you do the Lear hoop. I’ve always felt slightly young for it. But I’ve waited and now I’m only about eight years off the textual age that he is. I’ve always wanted to have a go at it, but I’ve wanted to be in the right frame of mind. And confident that at least I could approximate the age. I know many actors play him much younger, in their 40s or 50s.»

    Gielgud was 29, I say.

    «Yes, but he was Gielgud. He was rather special. I just feel that I needed to be older. Not necessarily to look older, but to feel older. To feel closer to the man.»

    Has it made you reflect on your own mortality?

    «No, no, I don’t think the play has. I was reflecting on my own mortality anyway. But the play does make you think about age, and what age does to you, and what age confers on you, and what age does to you in the eyes of other people and how they react to you.»

    Although, he says, he still feels 18. And despite the snowy-white Santa Claus beard he’s growing for the role, and a very faint milkiness around the edges of his brilliant blue eyes, he’s still trim and healthy, a necessity given the rigours of the role – wailing at the heavens, going mad, dying. And the fact that after a run at the Donmar Warehouse in London, the play, which is directed by Michael Grandage, will be going on an eight-week national tour – including a performance that will be simulcast live to 300 cinemas in 22 countries – before ending up on Broadway next spring.

    It’s a big part, a major production, a long run. The critics are sharpening their pens. All facts that have not gone unremarked by Jacobi. He’s suffered from stage fright all his life, giving up the theatre for several years at one point, when it became acute.

    «I do get very nervous. Very nervous. And the pressures are much bigger now. There was a lovely actress called Dorothy Tutin and she always said that there were three categories of actor. The first one was «young and talented», which is a great category to be in. You’ve got youth on your side, and you’re the rank outsider in the race. You’ve got everything to play for, nothing to lose. Then you become, if you’re lucky, «experienced and successful». You’ve got work, you’re making a living, and you’re also getting wonderful experience. And then there’s the last one, which is «distinguished and acclaimed». And that’s where the pressure is. Now you’re the favourite in the race, you have to win or come a good second. Now people are putting money on you to win.»

    They are, but then if it’s not quite a dead cert, it’s certainly a fair bet. Because Derek Jacobi has had the kind of career that young actors would sell their grandmothers for. On stage, he’s played practically every major classical role you can name – Uncle Vanya, Oedipus, Richard III. He was a founding member of the National Theatre, performed to packed houses on Broadway, played leading roles for season after season with the RSC. Then there’s his film and television career, not just the still vividly remembered stammering Claudius from the landmark 1970s television drama I, Claudius, the taciturn manservant in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and a definitive Francis Bacon in Love is the Devil (which he considers one of his finest performances), but also Cadfael, an ITV medieval murder mystery, cameos in the likes of the Victoria Wood Christmas specials, and spoofing himself in Frasier.

    And yet, perhaps the most surprising thing about Jacobi in the flesh, is that he’s not at all pompous. He refers several times to his «extraordinarily good luck» and «the luck that has stayed with me my entire career» and he doesn’t seem to be being coy. And while he’s not immune to a certain degree of theatrical luvviness (Lear is an «Olympian» role, which requires the stamina of an «athlete»), he does also seem genuinely modest and ungrand.

    But then he’s right, he has been lucky as well as talented. The kind of luck that involved Sir Laurence Olivier being locked out of his house, checking into a local hotel, turning on the television, catching Jacobi’s performance as Marlow in She Stoops to Conquer, and hand-picking him for his next production. Or the luck that brought a certain English teacher to his east-London school, Leyton county high, who decided to take a staging of Hamlet to the Edinburgh fringe where Jacobi, in the title role, still a schoolboy, was reviewed in the Observer by the legendary critic Kenneth Tynan.

    A librarian in our newspaper archive digs the review out for me, and there he is, his whole career ahead of him, but incredibly already a sensation: «Derek Jacobi, the lauded schoolboy Hamlet, is chiefly impressive because he is not a born Hamlet at all. Nothing in his aspect is princely, aquiline or poetically sensitive; instead we have a dashing, wounded sulky-looking boy attacking an unsuitable part with exceptional intelligence and ambition. A fine recruit, I would say, for modern prose drama.»

    It’s a bit of a back-handed compliment, but it’s true, he’s not princely, or even, despite the voice – all fruity vowels and theatrical cadences – posh. His father left school at 13 and worked in a tobacconist’s in Chingford, and his mother at a draper’s in Leyton. But one of Jacobi’s other great strokes of luck was to have been born in the golden age of social mobility: he was able to launch himself into a career in drama after winning a place at the local grammar school, and a full state scholarship to Cambridge.

    «It’s true. Those student tuition fees now…»

    «Do you think you’d have still gone to university, if they’d be around then?»

    «I would if the money was available. My parents worked all their lives and they would have bust a gut to help me out. They were amazingly supportive – because I went into a world they knew nothing about, and the little they did know was a bit scary.»

    His parents do sound particularly doting. He was the adored only child – his birth was so difficult that his mother swore she wouldn’t have another. Born in 1938, he didn’t really see his father until the war was over. I read a story, I say, about how they gave you a car for your 21st…?

    «They did! I tend to well up every time I hear that story. I’d come home from Cambridge for the weekend and Dad said, ‘Can you go to the shop and get me a paper?’ So I came back and he said, ‘Oh I’ve forgotten something, can you get me some cigarettes?’ So I went back, and they were both standing on the front doorstep. And I said, ‘What’s going on?’ And they said, ‘Didn’t you notice anything?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And they said, ‘A car? A red Ford Popular?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And they said, ‘Did you not see anything on the steering wheel?’ And there was this great silver key! I said, ‘How the hell have you managed to buy me a car?’ And my mum said, ‘Well we saved up ten bob a week since the day you were born.’ The slowest burn in the world. And they waited 21 years for the satisfaction that gave them. Just extraordinary. So, yes! I think they would have found the tuition fees!»

    It is a remarkable story, and his eyes really have welled up. He stayed close to them throughout his life, finally losing his father when he was 90. For years, though, that was about as much as anyone knew about his private life. He’s never really put himself forward. He’s never done a chat show, or had much of a public persona, part of the reason perhaps he’s always been able to blend so seamlessly into his roles. He’s managed to have the kind of career that doesn’t seem to exist now: he really is famous for the work, not for himself. For years, he maintained that he lived alone in north London. Then just over five years ago, he went on record about his sexuality, that he’s gay, had been with the same partner for nearly 30 years – «someone from outside the business who remains nameless», according to one interviewer.

    In fact, his partner is an actor, Richard Clifford, and a few months after civil partnerships were introduced, they had a ceremony in a London register office witnessed by two actress friends. At some point, in later life, he’s become more comfortable about talking about such things, although even he seems not entirely sure why. «I suppose being secure in a relationship was a great help. And, of course, without my ever actually proclaiming it, or announcing it, everybody knew. All our friends knew. I didn’t have to take an advert out, because it was perfectly obvious to everyone so that seemed enough. And so because that was so, when anybody said, ‘Are you?’ I would say, ‘yes’. Because why deny it? It is shining out of me.»

    Still, he says, he’s «not a proselytiser, like Ian [McKellen]. He speaks for us all. But that’s just not in my nature.»

    He and McKellen (as well as Trevor Nunn and Corin Redgrave) were contemporaries at Cambridge. McKellen once told an interviewer that he’d had a secret crush on Jacobi.

    «Yes, I knew nothing about that!»

    But he said that years later he found out that you had a little bit of a crush on him.

    «No, no, no! In all honesty, I love him dearly and we are great friends, but I truly didn’t. I had crushes on several people but he was my friend.»

    The other thing I’d read, I say, was that McKellen said that one of the reasons he was drawn to the theatre was that this was a comfortable environment in which to be a gay man.

    «No, I don’t think that was for me a reason,» Jacobi says. «I knew that’s what I wanted to do. One of the reasons I applied for Cambridge and Oxford was that I knew both of those places were hotbeds for drama. And that’s what I wanted to do and I immediately found out where the acting was and I felt very comfortable in that world. But it was only while I was there that I had what I believe they call now a ‘coming out’. That I realised that that’s where my sexuality lay.

    «At school I’d had girlfriends, and I’d been in the back seat of the pictures, and I’d put my hand on the tit, and I thought, ‘No, this isn’t for me.’ I used to go to dances and take the girl home afterwards. I suppose it was only when I got to Cambridge that I met people who were like-minded for the first time. Not before then, I don’t think.»

    Could you be open about it, at that time?

    «I remember I was besotted with someone. I mean absolutely besotted. Like standing and looking up at their window. And we were great friends, and one day we were driving to London in the red Ford Popular and we had a row. And I was very upset and at one point, when I got home, I started to well up and cry. And my mother said, ‘What’s the matter?’ And I blurted it all out. I said, ‘I’m homosexual and I’ve failed in love. And we’ve just had a row.’ And she knew the boy, and she said, ‘You’re living in a very specialised world, a world you’re not used to, and lots of boys go through this.’ She was absolutely wonderful, and I remember saying, ‘Please don’t tell dad.’ I suppose she must have done but again, there was no judgment, there was just total support.

    «And then it was never mentioned. Ever. Again. Through all my young manhood, middle age, never ever. It was just accepted. We got on with life. It was never a problem, in that sense. It was only a problem in my head as a young man, as a child. I never kind of gave in to it entirely.»

    These aren’t stories I’ve read before in any interview, but he tells them so well: he’s Derek Jacobi after all, he knows how to deliver a line. But then suddenly, the weather changes and I get a flash of blue eyes. «This article is not going to be all about my sexuality, is it?»

    He has, until this point, been so softly spoken, so benign-looking with his white hair and white beard, that it’s easy to forget the power he’s able to unloose onstage. But there it is, just for a moment. «Hmmph,» he says. Although, in point of fact, I’m delighted to talk to him about a dozen other things. His friendship with Sir Laurence Olivier, for example. «He was kind of everything to me in the theatre: father figure, mentor, boss, employer, fellow actor, director, friend.» His encounters with Richard Burton. Tell me about Burton, I say.

    «I was playing Hamlet – again, it was when I was still at university and in the vacation we did a European tour. David, the boy playing Claudius, was Welsh and he knew Richard Burton, and one of our tour dates was Lausanne where Burton lived – and he came to see David, and afterwards said ‘Well done’. Then when I got back to Cambridge there was a letter for me saying how much he’d enjoyed it, and that I needed to work on my voice, but if I had any ideas of going into it professionally, he could help. A really wonderful letter. And then several years later, it must have been 1977, I did a couple of days on a film with Burton and I reminded him of this schoolboy Hamlet and he said, very sweetly, that yes, he remembered. And he said, ‘What are you doing now?’ And I said, ‘Well I’m about to play Hamlet at the Old Vic.’ And he said, ‘I’ll come and see you.’ And he did. And he came around afterwards and said, ‘Do you want to go out for dinner?’ And I said, yes, great, and as we were walking out of the dressing room, he said, ‘Do you mind if we go and stand on the stage? I haven’t stood on that stage for 25 years.’ So we stood on the stage and I said, ‘As a schoolboy, I sat up there and watched you playing Hamlet on this stage.’

    «It was a great moment. We sort of bonded. He didn’t want to talk about showbiz at all. All he wanted to talk about was the theatre, Shakespeare. And obviously he had regrets. It was a sort of sweet and sour talk. There he was. One of the most famous actors in the world. And a lot of him just wanted to be back at the Old Vic.»

    And then our time is up. Rehearsals are about to start again. And, I don’t want to pile on the pressure, but I think this Lear may turn out to have been worth the wait.