Thursday, July 24, 2014

Treading The Boards

Just read Derek Jacobi's memoir As Luck Would Have It.  Jacobi is one of the top British actors of our age, but he doesn't have quite the recognition of a contemporary like, say, Ian McKellen.  Probably because he never had a major film career.

His book is a whirlwind tour.  At a bit over 300 pages it reads quickly, divided into the "Seven Ages" of life, broken up into 46 chapters, each one divided into short sections.

He knew he wanted to be an actor at a young age and played major roles as a schoolboy.  He went to Cambridge where his talent was recognized and he soon was playing with Sir Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre in London.  He'd go on to be a leading man and make a worldwide reputation in the title role of the BBC series I, Claudius.  But he remained a man of the theatre.  As he puts it, "movies make you rich, TV makes you known, but theatre is really where it's at."

And when he was growing up, theatre meant Shakespeare.  Yes, he played many roles, some classical, some modern, but whenever your read British theatrical memoirs there's the Bard of Avon--they take in his words with their mother's milk.  Jacobi tells us about many productions, good and bad, and how he made his mark in certain roles, such as Hamlet, Benedick, Prospero, Malvolio and Lear.  He also got a lot of attention for his Cyrano, Uncle Vanya and Alan Turing in Breaking The Code.

He did appear in movies--Kenneth Branagh's Henry V and Hamlet, Dead Again, Gladiator, Gosford Park, The King's Speech and many others--but he never quite got that role that introduced him to the contemporary audience.

We meet all the big names along the way--Olivier, Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Dame Edith Evans, Peter O'Toole and many others. He also has a chapter where he mentions the political players he met (which includes a bit on his personal politics--without fail the most tiresome section in all such books).  Threaded through is stuff on his homosexuality, but though it played a central part in his life, he doesn't allow it to overwhelm the book.  In general, he comes across as an unassuming guy who is able to bring something special to his roles.

I've seen film of his work in the theatre, but I've never seen him live.  As great as he was in I, Claudius, I get the feeling that's the best way to see him.  Part of the magic of theatre is its evanescence, and while Jacobi has left a little of him behind in his book, I bet he's happiest he left so much behind on stage.

7 Comments:

Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Looked him up on imdb to confirm he was in Last Tango in Halifax, a ColumbusGal favorite.

His work that imdb uses for disambiguation (thanks, wikipedia)?

"Gladiator (2000)"

6:55 PM, July 24, 2014  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Surprised it's not I, Claudius, but maybe they don't use TV for IMDb.

10:52 PM, July 24, 2014  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

He's even made it into the iconic "Dr. Who" series (as arch-villain The Master), albeit in the new series that began in 2005. His career was very active during the first series (1960s - 1990s), I wonder if he was ever asked to play a role during those decades? Or if he wanted to?

8:00 AM, July 25, 2014  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I don't know if Dr. Who would have been his sort of thing then. (I'm not sure what you mean by the first series being from the 60s to the 90s. Weren't there several over those years?)

11:42 AM, July 25, 2014  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Dr. Who ran continuously from 1963, I think, through I believe the early 90s. There were different Doctors, but all played the same character whose appearance was changeable (sort of like Darren on Bewitched).

Then there was a break, then a movie I think around 2000, then another break and the new series started in 2005. And the new series uses a Star Trek-like device to reboot the universe, so all the first series stories may or may not have happened, though we are told it's the same Doctor (and the same Master, played at least for a few episodes by Jacobi). These two, it turns out, are the only two Time Lords to have survived some great big Time War.

12:29 PM, July 25, 2014  
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