Derek Jacobi, From Shakespeare To Slapstick Derek Jacobi is one of Great Britain's leading actors, with decades of work for film, TV and the stage. He plays the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Oscar-nominated drama The King's Speech. And his latest stage triumph is an award-winning London King Lear that's headed for the U.S.
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Derek Jacobi, From Shakespeare To Slapstick

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Derek Jacobi, From Shakespeare To Slapstick

Derek Jacobi, From Shakespeare To Slapstick

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Sir Derek Jacobi is one of Great Britain's leading actors with decades of work on stage and in television and film. He can be seen in movie theaters now in "The King's Speech" as the archbishop of Canterbury. For six seasons, he played Brother Cadfael on television and his latest triumph is his award-winning role as King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse in London. He'll soon be taking that show on the road.

Sir Derek has proven that he can play anything - from Shakespeare to slapstick, sometimes both at once. He won an Emmy for his 2001 appearance on the television show "Frasier."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Frasier")

SIR DEREK JACOBI (Actor): (as Jackson Hedley) I cannot believe to hear the news from England but I do prophesy the election (unintelligible). He has by dying voice, the rest is silent.

HANSEN: The hardworking Sir Derek Jacobi is in the studio of BBC Bush House in London. Welcome to the program. What a pleasure to speak to you.

Mr. JACOBI: Thank you. It's lovely to be here.

HANSEN: Did you laugh when you were listening to yourself there?

Mr. JACOBI: Yes. You brought back very fond memories. It reminded me how easy it was to be a bad Shakespearean actor.

HANSEN: You're in your early 70s now, have been doing this for a long time - is it time for you to play Lear?

Mr. JACOBI: Well, yes, I think so. I've been in the business now - this is my 51st year - and I've always had a great inclination to play the classical repertoire. And when you're young and you are so inclined, you go through what are called the Hamlet hoop. And I gave my Hamlet when I was much younger and I played him for nearly 400 performances. So, I got to know him rather well. You know, you're judged on your Hamlet, whether you can become a card-carrying member of the classic club.

When you get older, you have to go through the Lear hoop for them to ascertain whether they were quite right all those years ago to give you a card to belong to a club. The impetus to play him really came from the director, Michael Grandage, a director whom I love, whom I trust and I worked very well with. So, when he said, come on, let's do it, I couldn't really say no.

HANSEN: In talking about the Lear, who is your Lear?

Mr. JACOBI: Well, the one...I only seen three Lears in my life. I saw Paul Scofield, the film that they did of Peter Book's production with Scofield. I saw Donald Wolfit when I was a schoolboy in the '50s. And I saw Sir Laurence when he did it for the television when he was in his 80s - the perfect age for Lear, but he was a little bit frail. The one that I remember most, I think, is Scofield from the film. Which in the film is almost entirely in close-up on him. I would love to have seen him in the theater.

But that said, I then put all that aside and find my King Lear, which is very much text-based, family-based, power-based and mistake-based.

HANSEN: Here's an excerpt:

(Soundbite of play, "King Lear")

Mr. JACOBI: (as King Lear) I don't know what else to say. I will not swear these are my hands. Let's see. I feel this pinprick. Would I wish was of my condition.

Ms. PIPPA BENNETT-WARNER (Actor): (as Cordelia) Well, look upon me, sir, and hold your hand in benediction owe me. Oh no, sir, you must not kneel.

Mr. JACOBI: Please do not mock me. I am a very foolish, fond old man and to deal plainly, I feared I'm not in my perfect mind.

Of course, he goes through madness and eventually find redemption. It's an extraordinary journey, a tortuous journey, a very emotional journey and a very, ultimately very moving journey.

HANSEN: I'm speaking with actor Sir Derek Jacobi, who has just performed "King Lear" at the Donmar Warehouse in London.

In talking about your loops or hoops that an actor goes through, Sir Laurence played Hamlet, you've played Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh played Hamlet. So, it seems it's generational there. How did Hamlet evolve or change with each of those generations do you think?

Mr. JACOBI: Oh gosh. Of course, I saw Olivier's film of "Hamlet," in, was it, 1947 I think. And that really did stay with me; that really impressed me as a young boy. I was only nine, 10 years old. And my first Hamlet was a schoolboy Hamlet. And what I lacked in expertise I made up in noise and passion. It was very loud and I tore a passion to tatters as a schoolboy.

And then, of course, I ended up directing Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet, which was a wonderful experience but he convinced me that I wasn't a director. By the time I directed Ken I'd played it hundreds of times and as we went through the rehearsal period, I would get an idea. And my first reaction was, well, why didn't I think of that when I was doing it and now I've got to give it away to Ken Branagh and I found that very frustrating.

But I allowed my generous side to win and I gave these ideas away - some of which he accepted, some of which he declined. But it was fascinating to see it develop from someone like Olivier - and Olivier's version was heavily cut, of course. My version and Ken's were the full four-hour versions.

Hamlet, to me, is the big personality part in the canon. He can be played any which way - tall, short, fat, thin, male, female - there have been very successful actresses who've played at Hamlet. It all depends on the personality, the sound, the charisma, the look of whoever's being Hamlet. The great thing about Hamlet is that you don't play his character, you play the situations in which he finds himself. You put yourself into those situations with those words, with those lines in the situations and that becomes your Hamlet.

HANSEN: Sir Laurence Olivier discovered you?

Mr. JACOBI: Not really. I had been working at the Birmingham Repertory Theater. It was my first job. And I'd been there for three years. And I didn't go to drama school, so it was kind of my drama school and it was all practical in front of an audience. And he was sitting up front one Wednesday matinee - we haven't been told that he was there - when I was playing Shakespeare's "Henry VIII" and he came right afterwards.

And when I picked myself up off of the floor and when he came into the dressing room, he said he enjoyed what he'd seen and a week later offered me a job at the Festival Theater, the second year - this is 1963. And that company became the original National Theater Company. So, I was a founding member of the National Theater. And I stayed with Sir Laurence and the Old Brit Company for the next eight years.

So, in that sense, he really didn't discover me; he kind of supported me and set me on my course, I suppose.

HANSEN: What's the most valuable advice you've been given as an actor?

Mr. JACOBI: I think it would be advice that I would certainly pass on to any aspiring young actor, and it's that if you want to be an actor, don't. But if you need to be an actor, do. Because you will always regret not giving it a go. It might not work for you - it often doesn't - but it has to be a need, it has to be a visceral gut need. You have to think of life isn't life without acting. It's vocational. You have to need with your heart and soul to be an actor and to be prepared to face the unfairness of the profession.

HANSEN: Sir Derek Jacobi just ended his run as King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse in London. He's taking the show on an American tour. DVDs of the Brother Cadfael series and the documentary "Discovering Hamlet" are available through Acorn Media. Sir Derek joined us from our studios at the BBC in London. Thank you so much. What a pleasure to talk to you.

Mr. JACOBI: My great pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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