Derek Jacobi: Acting Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 92

Actor Derek Jacobi talks about his remarkable career, including the advice he received from Richard Burton, a disappointing rejection by the Royal Shakespeare Company, sharing the stage with Laurence Olivier, performing King Lear in 2010, his collaborations with Kenneth Branagh, and a struggle with paralyzing stage fright that drove him away from the theater for two years in the 1980s.
Derek Jacobi was a founding member of Britain’s Royal National Theatre. He’s won a Tony Award, a Primetime Emmy, a Laurence Olivier Award, and a BAFTA from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. 
This is the second of a two-part interview. In part one, Jacobi talks about the Shakespearean role for which he is best known, Hamlet, which he has performed more than 400 times in his career.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published March 6, 2018. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode O, For A Muse Of Fire! was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. Special thanks to Janet Alexander Griffin, the Folger’s director of public programs and artistic producer. We had production help from Michelle Morton at the Royal Shakespeare Company, James Ranahan and Paul Taylor from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Cathy Devlin at The Sound Company in London.

Previous: Derek Jacobi: Playing Hamlet | Next: The George North Manuscript


MICHAEL WITMORE: When you’re born with a gift like this, you share it with the world.

[CLIP of Derek Jacobi in Hamlet]


(Let me not think on ’t; frailty, thy name is woman!),
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears—why she,  even she
(O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer!), married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her gallèd eyes,
She married.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s Director. The actor you were just enjoying a few seconds ago is of course the remarkable Derek Jacobi. We got to sit down for an extended conversation with Jacobi at the end of 2017. This is Part 2 of that talk. You don’t need to listen to Part 1 in order to understand this interview, but we hope you will anyway. Mostly because we think you’ll really enjoy it.

In Part 1, Jacobi talked about playing Hamlet. This is a more general conversation, about his career at-large. And what a career it’s been, starting when he was just a high school boy in the 1950s and moving on to the West End, Broadway, movies, and television. We call this podcast …

[CLIP of Derek Jacobi as Chorus in Henry V]

CHORUS: O for a muse of fire!

Derek Jacobi is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: You know, you'd think that being a Shakespeare podcast that we'd get to talk a lot of actors, but that's not really the case. We talk to some, but you are certainly a treat, and I was hoping because of this that we could start the conversation in an actorly way with a vocal warm-up.

DEREK JACOBI: Oh dear. Oh dear. [LAUGH]

BOGAEV: Would that work? What do you usually do before a Shakespeare performance, or any performance, for that matter?

JACOBI: Well vocally, I do some scales.

BOGAEV: A scale like a singing scale?

JACOBI: Yes, yes, yes. I had a… years ago I had a wonderful American voice coach when I was doing Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway, and he used to come into the dressing room and kind of roll me out flat on the floor with the Alexander technique, and then he'd start on my voice, and all the things I do now to warm up are from him and what he taught me.

BOGAEV: Okay, so could we have a scale, do you think?

JACOBI: [LAUGH]. Now you're pushing it. Now you are pushing it. It's quarter past four on a December afternoon here in London. Will you forgive me if I don't do a scale?

BOGAEV: Oh, of course.

JACOBI: It might come out rather badly.

BOGAEV: I was thinking that Richard Burton gave you some advice about your voice.

JACOBI: Oh yes, he did.

BOGAEV: And about how your voice is so beautiful that it might put the audience to sleep.

JACOBI: That's right. No, he said your voice is...

BOGAEV: When you do your Shakespearean verse.

JACOBI: "Your voice is very mellifluous," he said, "Like mine." And he said, "I used to go on to the top of a mountain in Wales and shout in order to roughen my voice up." And he said, "I think you should do the same, because you're in a great fear of, as you say, putting people to sleep."

BOGAEV: Did you take his advice?

JACOBI: For about five minutes.


[CLIP of Derek Jacobi in Hamlet]


What if this cursèd hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood?
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offense?
And what’s in prayer but this twofold force,
To be forestallèd ere we come to fall,
Or pardoned being down?

BOGAEV: Did he ever give you any advice that you took?

JACOBI: No, not really. I knew him only peripherally, really. I, we met originally when I was a student at Cambridge and I was playing Hamlet, and we ended up in Lausanne, where he lived, and a fellow Welshman of his was also in our cast playing Claudius in Hamlet, and so through him I met Richard, and then when I got back to Cambridge there was a letter waiting for me from him saying, "If ever you want to become a professional, and if ever I could do anything for you, let me know." And of course I immediately lost the letter, but then we met again many years later on a film set, when I was doing just two days on a film that he was starring in, and he said, "What are you doing with yourself these days?" And I said, "Well actually, I'm playing Hamlet at the Old Vic," and he said, "I'll come and see you," which he did. And it was one of the thrills of my life when we... He came right afterwards, and as we were exiting the theater he said, "Do you mind if we go and stand on the stage? I haven't stood on that stage for 25 years." And I stood beside my hero, having just played Hamlet, and having seen him play Hamlet in that very theater as a schoolboy, and it was a thrilling moment.

BOGAEV: Well, I've been asking you so much about acting technique, but you didn't actually go to drama school to learn to be an actor, and instead you went to Cambridge, and that means a lot to anyone who's English, but if you could explain for us, an American audience, and a 21st-century American audience, what does that mean? What is it about going to Cambridge that prepared you for this remarkable career of yours?

JACOBI: Well, I was just 19 when I went up to Cambridge. I'd played Hamlet for my school, and an enterprising English master had taken us to the fringe at the Edinburgh Festival. This was 1957, and we got a lot of national coverage. So when I went up to Cambridge I'd had a bit of national publicity about this schoolboy Hamlet at Edinburgh. I also knew that I wanted to be an actor, and also that Oxford and Cambridge were hotbeds of acting. So when I got into Cambridge the first thing that I did was join dramatic societies, and so each term I acted.

BOGAEV: It sounds almost as if it's like being in a repertory company rather than a university.

JACOBI: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely it was rep.

BOGAEV: Is that what—

JACOBI: Yes, yeah. And...

BOGAEV: —going off to Cambridge means for an actor?

JACOBI: It certainly was what it meant for me and for several of my contemporaries. And then when I left Cambridge and I did go into a repertory company, at Birmingham for three years, and that was a new play every four weeks for three years, that was really my drama school.

[CLIP of Derek Jacobi in Richard II]


A little, little grave, an obscure grave;
Or I’ll be buried in the King’s highway,
Some way of common trade, where subjects’ feet
May hourly trample on their sovereign’s head;
For on my heart they tread now whilst I live
And, buried once, why not upon my head?

JACOBI: I don't think a drama school can teach you how to act. If you are an actor you were an actor when you walked through the door of the drama school. They can teach you how to express what talent you have, how to hone what talent you have, but it can't give you the talent.

[CLIP of Derek Jacobi in Richard II continues]


…there lies
Two kinsmen digged their graves with weeping eyes.
Would not this ill do well? Well, well, I see
I talk but idly, and you laugh at me.

BOGAEV: And this is about the time that you had your first audition with the Royal Shakespeare Company after college, which you didn't get, and I love this story. Didn't you quit a job, quit that job prematurely?

JACOBI: No, it wasn't when I left college. It was when I was still at Birmingham, and Birmingham was only 20 miles from Stratford-on-Avon, and it was kind of the tradition that the leading young man at Birmingham would end up with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and after three years I was called. I had a letter from God, otherwise known as Peter Hall, inviting me to join the company, and I was thrilled. I went to the powers that be at Birmingham and said, "Will you let me go? Stratford has called." And they said, "Go with our blessing." And then about a week later I got a letter saying, "Would I go over to the Royal Shakespeare Memorial Theater to meet everybody?” So I went, and at the stage door I was given a copy of The Tempest and told to read Ariel. So they gave me ten minutes to look at it, I went out onto the stage, and read...

BOGAEV: So it's an audition?

JACOBI: It was an audition, which I wasn't expecting, and all the directors were there. It was like Olympus. Michel Saint-Denis, Peter Brook, Clifford Williams, Peter Hall. I mean, they were all there, and I launched into Ariel, like a kind of sick choir boy, and at the end of it Peter Brook came to the edge of the stage and said the equivalent of “Don't call us, we'll call you,” and I went back to Birmingham, and I got another letter saying, "We don't think you're ready for the Shakespeare Company," so I had to go back to the powers that be at Birmingham and say, "Can I have my job back?" It was my first and I think biggest disappointment of my career. Anyway, luck was with me. You are talking to the luckiest actor that ever was.

BOGAEV: Well, I think so, because it all worked out in the end. You went back to Birmingham, and isn't that where Laurence Olivier saw you?

JACOBI: Yeah, I went back to Birmingham. It was the 50th anniversary, and to celebrate they were going to do the three Shakespeare plays they'd never done, which were Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida, and Henry VIII, and they cast me as Troilus, Henry VIII, and Aaron the Moor in Titus. Three spanking-great Shakespeare roles in repertoire for 15 weeks, and one Wednesday matinee I was playing Henry VIII, and Laurence Olivier was out front, liked what he saw, and offered me a job. That company that I then joined with him became the first national theater company at the Old Vic in London.

BOGAEV: So you shared the stage with Oliver, and you had this long friendship with him...


BOGAEV: Is there anything of his that comes back to you when you're in the midst of a performance? That kind of déjà vu I imagine, maybe that you don't have this, but I imagine actors can have, because you have muscle memory of the performers that you watched and admired and responded to that came before you.

JACOBI: I think what I remember most was his bravery, his courage as an actor, and the choices he made. Choices that involved danger. He was one of those actors who thought... Where did he think of doing that? Where did that come from? And of course it was often spectacular. There was one play called Love for Love, when he was playing Mr. Tattle. Wonderful, wonderful comic performance. I was in the other half of the company, but I saw it. And then, this was at the end of the ‘60s, he got cancer, and he had to go into hospital, but he didn't like his understudy, and I was called into his nursing room and asked to take over as Tattle. I wasn't in that half of the company, so this was on a Thursday, and I was due to go on in his place on the Tuesday, I saw him do it again on the Monday, I learnt my lines over that weekend, saw him do it on Monday with kind of field glasses trained on him, and when it was announced that Sir Laurence was off, the groan that went up from the audience could be heard at Waterloo Station. It was a deep, deep dissatisfied groan, but the payoff was that there were a couple, an American couple, who came late, and the box office manager installed them at the back of the dress circle. Said, "You know, at the interval we can put you in your proper seats," and at the interval he went to them, to take them to their proper seats, and he said, "Are you enjoying it?" and they said, "Yeah, the old man's doing great." [LAUGH]. They hadn't heard the announcement, which was recently…

BOGAEV: Oh, that would horrify Olivier.

JACOBI: Right, yes, yes, yes.

BOGAEV: Larry wouldn't like that.

JACOBI: No, but, you see again, when I talked about his bravery and his courage, he did a piece of business in that, at the age of, what he was 65 then, that I, at the age of 27, 28 couldn't begin to do. I had to do something else. It was too dangerous.

BOGAEV: You mean leaping out of a window.

JACOBI: He came out of a window, he slid down a roof, he walked along the top of the wall in high-heel shoes. I couldn't do it. I couldn't do it.

BOGAEV: Well, we've talked about Hamlet, and you in Hamlet, the big young role, and not too long ago in 2011 you played the huge older role in Shakespeare of Lear.


BOGAEV: I have to ask you, how did the two compare for you in difficulty or challenge?

JACOBI: Oh, gosh. Well, when you're young and you have any aspirations to be a classical actor you're judged on your Hamlet. If your Hamlet's good enough you're kind of, you're let into the club, but then you have to justify your entry years later by doing Lear. And I waited and waited, I never felt old enough, and I was eventually 74 when I did it, because the director, Michael Grandage, said, "You know, unless you do it now you just won't have the physical stamina to do eight King Lears a week," because...

BOGAEV: And it's a bear of a role, you're on stage so often.

JACOBI: It's, oh yes. Yes, it's huge. It's absolutely huge. Physically, and vocally, and mentally, it's enormous. So I said, "Okay, well I'm, you know, I still got all my faculties, and I'm fairly limber," and it's one of the things that actors have to have actually: health and stamina, apart from a modicum of talent. It had the Lear, for me in the preparation of the Lear, it had echoes for me of Hamlet, 'cause Hamlet was the first biggie that I'd ever done, and in the back of my head I thought, "Well, this is the last biggie that I'll do," and it was wonderful.

BOGAEV: Well, what did you love about it? Because Lear is so angry and so confrontational, and you seem so the opposite of that.

JACOBI: It... Well, it appeals to all my instinctive actor's juices. It is one of those, like Hamlet, but even more so than Hamlet I think, where you are asked to play every instrument in the orchestra. Not to be a wonderful cellist, or a wonderful violinist, you’ve got to be the entire orchestra. And the demands that it makes on an actor, if you can climb that Himalayan mountain, it's, the...

BOGAEV: Do you mean the emotional arc?

JACOBI: Oh, the, yes. The emotional...

BOGAEV: From the autocratic, the arrogant Lear of the beginning to...

JACOBI: Yes. And all, and the diminution, the... It is so many-layered, it is so textured, and you can use every, every note in your repertoire, and note in your voice, note in your body. He asks you to use what you are, what you have, your whole being. That is true, of course, of acting itself, but with Lear, to communicate that to the audience, to actually impress on the audience what you are going through and hopefully what they are going through, because it is about, it is for them. We don't do it for ourselves. They must feel it. I mean, it's fine if you start crying on stage. “Oh look, he's crying.” Yeah, that's fine. But if you're dry-eyed it ain't so fine. You've got to be crying to.

BOGAEV: Well, your director in that production, Michael Grandage, said that he worried about how much of yourself you gave to the performance every night. That you always went to that place of sobbing over Cornelia's death scene night after night, and that some actors resort to, you know, the technique or tricks...

JACOBI: Yeah, I...

BOGAEV: Instead of feeling the full emotional burden of it every time over the course of a long run, but you arrived there. How do you do that?

JACOBI: I suppose I cry easily. I... Death, and particularly the death of a loved one, is very moving. I can't see how you can play that scene dry-eyed.

BOGAEV: Do you think about one particular loss as you're playing?

JACOBI: I used to, yes. I've only ever seen one person die. I saw my father die. And there was a play I did called A Voyage Round My Father several years ago in which, at the end, I'm in a wheelchair and I have to die, and I remember mimicking what I'd seen. I got in my head, said, "I hope you don't mind, Dad, but I'm going to use what I saw you go through in death. I'm going to use it on stage to entertain people. I hope you don't mind." And that, I don't think he did. And I recreated what I'd seen, and several people afterward, came up afterwards and said, "Do you know, we really thought you'd gone," but that wasn't a tearful thing, that was merely trying to reproduce somebody's last seconds, but to lose a loved one who has been, you know, murdered, I can't see how you can carry a body onto a stage without remembering when she was alive, and surely that… you can't stop the tears then.

BOGAEV: Last year, ironically, you were cast as Mercutio.


BOGAEV: After...


BOGAEV: After playing the great Lear you were Mercutio, which is usually played by a rather young man, or younger man. They usually cast someone a bit...

JACOBI: You put that so elegantly. [LAUGH].

BOGAEV: [LAUGH] Hardly. But Kenneth Branagh directed that production...

JACOBI: Yes, yes.

BOGAEV: And I wonder, what was, why did he go for you for that role? What was the conversation around that?

JACOBI: Well, I've worked a lot with Ken and… mutual admiration society. I've known Ken since he was 18 when he came to my dressing room to interview me and I was playing Hamlet at the Vic. Anyway, the Mercutio, my first reaction was, "Well, Mercutio's one of the boys, isn't he? I mean, he's, Romeo, and Benvolio, and Mercutio, they're kids." And he said no, he wanted an older Mercutio and I was, "Where have you got that from?" And he said, "I've always remembered a story I was told many years ago about George Orwell, who went to Paris for the weekend and, with some friends, and he was sitting in a bar, and there was an elderly gentleman in the corner, and they sent him over a drink, and he eventually joined them. And he was great fun. He was witty and experienced and, you know, the boys liked his company. But eventually he left, and they said to the barman, 'Is he a regular?' and the barman said, 'Yes, yes, he's always in here.' 'Do you know who he is?' And he went, 'Yeah, of course, it's Oscar Wilde.'" "And that," said Ken, "Convinced me that Mercutio could be this older man. Witty, experienced, great company. He enjoys the boys’ company, they enjoy his company. And then it also makes his death more poignant." And I can only say that once he told me that, and I had a go, it worked. It did work. It did work, and I enjoyed it very much.

BOGAEV: You've said in the past that you are plagued by stage fright. Were you plagued by stage fright in this last appearance, last year?

JACOBI: No. Vestigially, I think is the word.

BOGAEV: Oh, are you, do you think it's finally behind you?

JACOBI: It's always in the back of your head. I went through it for two years. I didn't go on stage for two years because I'd got it. I did it to myself, stupidly. But I...

BOGAEV: You did it to yourself, right, in the middle of the “to be” speech, wasn't it?

JACOBI: It, right in the middle of Hamlet, yes. Yeah.

BOGAEV: Why there, do you think?

JACOBI: Well, I, it was the last day of a world tour. We were in Australia, in Sydney, and it was the last performance, and our interval came before the nunnery scene, so the first thing I had to do after the interval was “to be or not to be.” And I'm in the wings waiting for my cue when I was thinking, "You know, when any actor says “to be or not to be,” there's a special, almost tangible, silence that falls on the audience. It's the phrase that everybody knows. And when an actor actually says it in context on the stage you can almost hear a sort of little sharp intake of breath in the audience. It's a magic moment." And I'm thinking this in the wings, and then I thought, "What would happen if an actor forgot it?" And anyway, I heard my cue, I went on, “To be or not to be, that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against ...” What comes next? What the hell comes next? I'd done it nearly 400 times, so automatic pilot took over, and it came out, and the rest of the play came out. So did every bit of sweat in my body. Every pore opened. And I was sort of in a catatonic state. My toes became talons in my shoes. Otherwise I'd have fallen over. And it was so violent a reaction because I was so confident that I knew it, I'd done it all these times, that it shook- I didn't go on stage for two years.

BOGAEV: And you just said you did it to yourself.

JACOBI: I did. Well, I'd put...

BOGAEV: Is there a moral for you in this story of stage fright?

JACOBI: Yeah, don't ever question, don't ever question yourself. I, by asking that question, what if I drop, what if I forgot it, I was questioning my ability to act, my enjoyment of acting. All those questions that you think, those silly questions that the public, "How do you learn your lines?" Yes, how do I learn my line? "How do you get up in front of a thousand people?" Yes, how do I get up in front of a thousand people? Once you've asked those questions of yourself, questions that didn't apply. I mean, you just did it, you just did it. Once you ask those questions... You shouldn't ask them. You shouldn't ask them. Even talking to you about it now, you know, it's silly. Silly really, 'cause I'm asking them again. So, but you shouldn't, you shouldn't.

BOGAEV: There's something very Lear about it. A fear that every, or the reality of things, of loss, of things...

JACOBI: Yes, yes.

BOGAEV: Leaving you, that you once had.

JACOBI: Yes, yes, yes. It was awful. You know, as I say, I didn't go on the stage for two years, and I worked in front of cameras, but even there I wasn't at ease. I wasn't at ease. And cameras, you're surrounded by safety nets, but I still wasn't totally at ease.

BOGAEV: Well, I have many questions for you, and I could ask them all day, but I've never asked the question of, you know, what makes you a great actor? That is so, so apparent, and it's been such a pleasure to hear how you think about your work and your craft. Thank you so much.

JACOBI: My great pleasure. Thank you.


WITMORE: Derek Jacobi was a founding member of Britain’s Royal National Theatre. He’s won a Tony Award, a Primetime Emmy, a Laurence Olivier Award, and a BAFTA from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

This is part two of our interview with Jacobi. In part one, he talks about playing Hamlet, which he has done more than 400 times in his career.

"O, For A Muse Of Fire!" was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. Special thanks to Janet Alexander Griffin, the Folger’s director of public programs and artistic producer. We had production help from Michelle Morton at the Royal Shakespeare Company, James Ranahan and Paul Taylor from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Cathy Devlin at The Sound Company in London.

We hope you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited. If you are, we hope you’ll do us a favor. Please consider rating and reviewing the podcasts on whatever platform you get the podcast from. When you do that, it helps us get the word out to people who haven’t heard it yet. Thanks.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library.  Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts.  You can find more about the Folger at our website,  For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.