A mixture of mutual surprise and shared excitement met Sir Derek Jacobi and his audience at the Donmar Warehouse. For him, it seemed to lie in seeing so many gathered for this ‘Discussion’; for us, it was seeing He, Claudius, sporting boots, beard and jeans.
Although the event was billed as a discussion between Jacobi and Mark Shenton of the Sunday Express, in reality the actor was conversing with his audience. He swept the entire auditorium when speaking, addressing those in the side stalls and circle, as well as those at his feet. Each question from Shenton sent the raconteur on a glittering tangent, before he landed back home, charmingly, at the answer.
Jacobi has an uncanny ability to recall names and dates, even correcting Shenton at one point. It is a pity, then, that no autobiography will be forthcoming; as, he said, he is ‘no good’ at writing. This will surely be posterity’s loss – his first major break was being asked by Laurence Olivier to help found The National in 1963. Thus began what is a truly meteoric career.
On being asked by a member of the audience if he had any advice for budding actors – that old chestnut – he gave a piercingly unambiguous response: if you want to be an actor, don’t bother. If you need to be an actor, then go for it. Only then will you have the ‘stomach’ to deal with the many inevitable rejections. I, like many in the audience, realised I did not want or need to be an actor. I’m sure just as many felt they were about to take a very large step indeed.
Jacobi ended his reminiscences by telling us of an occasion where he was invited up to Noël Coward’s suite at the Savoy after the elder actor had taken the younger out for dinner. As the neophyte, some point in the wee small hours, began to take his leave, the Master sprang a question on him: “Are you, my dear boy, circumcised?” Jacobi, his spirits dropping, replied that he was not. “You will never be a truly great actor unless you have it done.” “Why, Mr Coward?” “Freedom, dear boy – absolute freedom.” Swearing the guffawing auditorium, including the camera crew, to secrecy, Jacobi shimmered off stage, again acknowledging his entire audience.
by Sion Hughes Carew, Theatre critic
Derek Jacobi appears in King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse from Monday 06 December 2010 to Saturday 05 February 2011
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