‘He’s witty, he’s experienced, he’s got tales to tell, he’s full of himself, but there’s an edge to him, there’s something about him…’ This is how Sir Derek Jacobi characterises Oscar Wilde, but it’s a perfect self-description. Jacobi is telling me a story to justify Kenneth Branagh’s decision to cast him as the young hothead Mercutio at 77. A young George Orwell walks into a bar with some friends, and they hit it off with a witty older gentleman who tells marvellous stories. Only on his departure do they discover that the older man is Oscar Wilde. ‘That resonated’, Jacobi says. ‘The older man joined the younger men, with no particular sexual connotation, but they enjoyed his company. That gave me a grounding. That gave me a justification for casting me.’
There’s certainly something special about Derek Jacobi, but he’s keen to dress down his otherworldliness. He tells me he’s spent the last four days recording a Doctor Who audiobook. ‘It’s a great franchise, Doctor Who,’ he says. ‘Nowadays, the otherness of people who act has diminished – if not disappeared – because people can watch the telly as an ordinary bloke and think, “I could do that!” I watch Coronation Street. Somehow, acting, in that sense, is not special.’ He acknowledges his reputation as ‘classical, costume, posh’, and rightly insists he’s none of these things. But there remains something ‘other’, something bohemian about him. Calling himself ‘a jobbing actor’ and ‘the luckiest actor you will ever speak to’ doesn’t explain it away.
Jacobi is similarly unfussy about the ‘duty’ of the National Theatre, given that he’s a founding member. He dismisses as nonsense the claims that this season has neglected ‘classic’ plays (apart from Shakespeare): any theatre’s duty is only ‘to entertain’, he asserts. ‘And to guide, to teach. To provoke, of course. To make the audience think a bit differently, or just think about something they’ve never thought of before. It gets the juices flowing inside the head, and inside the heart.’
He is unafraid to criticise inaccessibility, even in Shakespearean greats like Sir John Gielgud, an actor very much of his era. ‘The voice is very poetic, very musical. But it is limited, in that when you hear Gielgud say a line, you know almost how he’s going to say the next one, because there was a pattern to his technique. I know this a criticism of God, but the delivery of some of the Shakespeare is not terribly meaningful, not very character-led. I always found it a little alienating. Too concerned with the metre, the verse, the rhythm, rather than spoken thought. Even Shakespeare must sound like spoken thought.’ On Laurence Olivier, he combines the reverence felt for a mentor with the healthy disrespect due to a friend: ‘He was God. He was wonderful. Could be a bugger. I mean, he could be a nasty old bat. He had many hats.’
Sometimes he lets his determinedly frank ‘jobbing actor’ persona slip into a more rhapsodic mood. He recalls the opening of the National Theatre on the 22nd of October, 1963, with Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet, directed by Laurence Olivier. ‘I was playing Laertes, and it was my 25th birthday. After the first night, there was a big party in the auditorium and on the stage, and all the glitterati of that time were there, and I was boring the ass off everybody going, “it’s the most wonderful night of my life. Laertes to O’Toole’s Hamlet! My twenty-fifth birthday, my twenty-fifth birthday!” Eventually, silence was called for, and Shirley Bassey sang “Happy Birthday” to me. I shall never forget that. That was the first night of the National Theatre, in ’63.’ There’s an edge to Jacobi that fights for no-frills accessibility, but I often sense nostalgia for the otherness of the glitterati of that time.
Tom Stoppard is an exception to his rule of straightforwardness. ‘Stoppard’s like Shakespeare – the revelling in words, the playing with words. The words are the star of the show, really, rather than the actors. With Shakespeare, of course, I bang on about accessibility, but, with Stoppard, it’s like water tinkling in a fountain – you get a cupful and then you miss the next. That in itself is a theatrical experience, which is wonderful.’ Characteristically, Jacobi throws in a starry anecdote: ‘I only ever once did a short Stoppard, The Real Inspector Hound. I remember, Tom came to one of the rehearsals, and I said to him, “I’m not exactly sure what this bit means”, and he said, “No, nor am I, nor am I. Only God knows, now”, which was very sweet, very honest.’
Jacobi thinks that playing the great Shakespearean roles is about reacting to a situation, rather than constructing a character, which allows him to bring a lot of himself to his roles: ‘I tried not to become Lear, but to make Lear me. I always get a bit uptight about actors who say, “I can’t do that. My character wouldn’t do that.” Your character could possibly do anything. We all act out of character a lot of the time. That’s what makes the human being and the human condition so fascinating. Situation is more important than character. Situation. Leave all options open! Don’t say, “I can’t go there” – because you would. In a certain situation, you would.’ I suggest that this method must work particularly well for Hamlet, the great personality role whom he has played nearly 400 times. Though Hamlet is widely considered to be a character with great interiority, a speech like ‘To be or not to be…’ is in fact remarkably impersonal, with hardly any personal pronouns. Is it, then, all about situation? For Jacobi, it is. ‘Whoever’s playing Hamlet – man, woman, fat, thin, tall, short, white, black – you put the personality of the actor, the sound of the actor, what the actor gives off, the charisma, into Hamlet’s situations. Hamlet is everybody that plays him.’
To demonstrate the power of situation, Jacobi begins playing Lear from his sofa, and I get a private glimpse of what it must be like to see him on stage. He thinks the first scene of Lear is incredibly difficult, but has a firm view on how things start to go wrong. He asks me rhetorically whether Lear intends to divide his kingdom when he comes on stage. ‘For me’, he says, ‘the first line of the play, and Lear’s first line, give it away.’ The first line is ‘I thought the king had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.’ Lear’s first is ‘Attend the lords of France and Burgundy’. Jacobi believes that Lear comes on to talk about Cordelia’s marriage, but becomes flustered when her suitors are not here. So he talks about his ‘darker purpose’ in the meantime, and it’s a shock to all that he’s dividing the kingdom three ways. ‘That made sense to me, that he comes on and things go wrong. And things are improvised, and it’s not what he meant. It’s not what he meant; it’s not what he planned. And already he’s discombobulated. That’s it.’
When he emerges from inhabiting Lear, I try to ask about his unusual views on Shakespeare authorship. Jacobi and Mark Rylance have made a Declaration of Reasonable Doubt that Shakespeare’s plays were written by the man we recognise from Stratford, and Jacobi has subscribed to the Oxfordian theory, that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author. He doesn’t seem keen to broach the subject, but soon gets riled up. ‘I do think it matters,’ he says. ‘I think we’re being led down a path to myth and legend, but myth and legend are very difficult if not impossible to dislodge without very concrete, indisputable evidence.’
I wonder what he thinks of The New Oxford Shakespeare, and its hypotheses that Shakespeare’s plays involved more collaboration than previously thought. He is open to this idea, if in an unorthodox way: ‘This is where Oxford becomes important, because he was a known literary patron and he had a kind of salon, and two of his secretaries were playwrights. To me, it smacks of a salon, of a group of literary, likeminded people, pooling knowledge with one man in particular in control of it all.’ As I begin to wonder whether the idea of a salon smacks of snobbery, he pre-empts my concerns: ‘The one thing they say is that if you do question authorship, you are anti-Shakespearean. I mean, my career! How can you say that Mark Rylance and I are anti-Shakespearean? We are anti-Stratfordian – yeah, guilty. But we’re not anti-Shakespearean. It’s really scraping the barrel, to say we’re snobs.’
I move away from the subject, to ask about his time acting as a student. ‘Theatre was the reason I went to Cambridge,’ he recalls fondly. ‘It was not to do History. I knew I wanted to be an actor. I also knew that Oxford or Cambridge, if you could get there, were hotbeds of acting. And they both had a veneer of professionalism about them. You could spend your three terms a year acting, which I did.’ I suspect this idyllic thespian lifestyle may not be possible to the same extent at Oxbridge today. Jacobi has strong advice for the budding student actor. ‘If you want to be an actor, don’t’, he urges. ‘If you need to be an actor, do. It’s vocational. If you can live without being an actor, don’t be an actor. Wanting is not enough. Needing is all.’