An hour’s ride north of Central London on the Tube, you’ll find Chickenshed Theatre tucked away in an area called Southgate. The inclusive theatre company is home to both adult and children’s productions, education courses, and an impressive variety of outreach and community activities. Earlier this month, they wrapped up an immense production of A Christmas Carol with a cast of over 200 people on stage for each performance. One of the actors, Ashley Driver, spoke with me last year about his time portraying Ebenezer Scrooge in the play.
On January 6, Chickenshed welcomed theatregoers from near and far for a special event called An Evening with Sir Derek Jacobi. Jacobi, who turned 80 in October, was there to share stories for nearly two hours about his life and acting career. He also gave a dramatic reading of Noel Coward’s poem, “The Boy Actor,” that was very well received. His longtime partner, Richard Clifford, took on interviewing and Q&A duties, roles that he exercised with great aplomb and charm. The evening concluded with a fun raffle to support Chickenshed, sending a lucky winner home with goodies that included an autographed copy of Jacobi’s memoir, As Luck Would Have It.
Jacobi, who holds both Danish and British knighthoods, is perhaps best known for his remarkable portrayals of Hamlet. Those in attendance learned that the actor played the role of Hamlet nearly 400 times on stage. Yet ironically, Hamlet nearly led him to give up theatre altogether. During the second-to-last performance on a world tour, Jacobi found himself in the wings wondering about “To be or not to be” and what might happen if an actor forgot the lines. Unfortunately, he dried up in the middle of it on stage. He survived that matinee as well as the evening performance a few hours later. But, he said, “I didn’t go on stage for two years. I got stage fright. I put that worm of doubt into my own head. It took two years to get it out.”
The next break came to Jacobi in the early 1980s when Stratford-Upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Company offered him the roles of Prospero in The Tempest, Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Peer Gynt in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, and the titular role in Cyrano de Bergerac. Before accepting the roles, he thought, “If I say no, I will never get on the stage again. This is an offer that any sane actor would kill for!”
“It was terrifying, terrifying! I got through it and I did those four parts. There was a time I was doing them in repertoire, so it was all four in the same week. I can’t imagine how many lines I had in my head. I couldn’t do it now,” he reflected about the experience that rejuvenated his stage career.
While Jacobi enjoys working on film and television, he said that the “job satisfaction” isn’t the same as in theatre. While movies and TV offer what he calls “safety nets” like retakes for flubbed lines, in his eyes the raw material that actors provide ends up as little more than “fodder.” Some ends up on the cutting room floor, while other bits are spliced and edited. “They’re going to [piece] it all together. That’s eventually what the public sees, but it wasn’t necessarily the performance that you thought you were giving! It can be mucked about with, improved usually, but sometimes messed up,” he lamented.
So far I’ve touched on serious topics, but there was plenty of lighthearted discussion about Jacobi growing up during World War II, his full scholarship to Cambridge, and his time with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. “The very first job I did with Birmingham Rep, I shared a dressing room with Brian [Blessed]. First time I’d ever seen an actor pee in the sink. I was shocked!” he said of his future I, Claudius castmate.
In 1963, Jacobi was recruited by Sir Laurence Olivier and spent seven years with him at the National Theatre in London. He agreed with Clifford’s summation of Olivier as “a formidable boss, a formidable director” at the National. “He was very supportive of us. At the same time, just a little bit afraid of us. Just a little bit wary of youth knocking at the door,” Jacobi added.
Many of the stories from An Evening with Sir Derek Jacobi are in his memoir As Luck Would Have It. I encourage you to read that enjoyable book for the full anecdotes about how Jacobi won a 1945 contest with his costume “Mother’s Worries” made of rags and WWII ration books; how Charlton Heston was the first choice for I, Claudius; the time co-star Sinéad Cusack forgot a very important letter in a pivotal scene of Cyrano de Bergerac; and more.
Do forgive me for launching into one of my favorite Derek Jacobi stories, which he retold at Chickenshed Theatre. Jacobi was at a party at Olivier’s flat in Victoria. He had just played his first big starring role at the National, as Prince Myshkin in Simon Gray’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. “I asked [Sir Laurence] if I could use the phone to ring my parents, who couldn’t come to the first night. Yes, yes, telephone is over there and so I was on the phone. I’d just put it down and he came in and he grasped me, saying, ‘Oh, you are my third son!’ But he was drunk at the time,” Jacobi said.
The Q&A with the audience turned out to be a thrilling segment as well. One recent television program that often arises in Q&As is Vicious, a show that Jacobi did with his longtime friend Sir Ian McKellen. Jacobi clarified that Vicious writer, director, and showrunner Gary Janetti (Family Guy, Will & Grace) did not permit any ad lib moments in the filming. “If you say one of the gags and it doesn’t get the big enough laugh that he wants, he will come down onto the set and write a new line. We’d do the scene again saying the new line to see if that gets a bigger reaction than the one he was disappointed in. It was very, very scripted,” he insisted.
An audience member asked whether there’s a part Jacobi still wanted to play. “I would like to play a part that probably has yet to be written…that nobody has ever seen before so I can’t be compared to anybody else. If you play a lot of the classical repertoire, you are constantly compared to other people who have played that part,” he replied, citing his role of Alan Turing in Breaking the Code as a past example of a newly created part.
The biggest surprise came when a woman asked whether Jacobi would consider doing a musical. It’s widely known that he cut a CD with Last Tango in Halifax co-star Anne Reid roughly a year and a half ago. Clifford chimed in with an answer, “Derek actually very recently had to sadly turn down a role in a musical, singing. There’s hope for you yet.” It was a role in Sara Bareilles’ popular musical Waitress, which makes its West End debut in February.
An Evening with Sir Derek Jacobi provided a lot of remarkable insights and humor about the life and career of the distinguished actor. It’s incredible to see him perform live with the emotion and commanding presence that he injects into his readings, relishing his moments with every line. Fortunately, Jacobi tends to give these talks now and then, so don’t despair if you missed seeing him this month. Don’t forget to check out my exclusive interview with him and Richard Clifford.