Hamlet Now

Some lessons from Derek Jacobi........

Derek Jacobi lives in a small Victorian house in Clapham, South London, an area once a postwar slum, now fashionable among writers and actors. The house has been painstakingly converted and prettily redecorated with a bachelor's finesse. Jacobi, however, is now so successful that he is rarely there. He installed a new video-recorder set in order to tape the British broadcast of Hamlet, the latest in the BBC's marathon Shakespeare series, in which he plays the title role. When it aired, Jacobi was abroad, playing a Swedish detective in a film. Last month, he opened on Broadway in the Russian play The Suicide. Jacobi, who modestly and somewhat inaccurately refers to himself as just a "jobbing" actor, likes the idea of such contrasts. Since his great success as Claudius, he has had his pick of both classical and modern roles in theater and in television and is just beginning to get good film offers.

Jacobi first played Hamlet as a schoolboy in 1957; he then had to wait exactly twenty years before anyone asked him to play it again, although that school performance, which was taken to the Edinburgh Festival fringe, achieved considerable acclaim. When he first played the part as a professional actor, it was in 1977 for the Prospect Theatre Company, a classical touring troupe that is now the resident company of the Old Vic. He enjoyed the distinction of being the first English actor since Olivier to play the part at Elsinore and the first European actor ever to play the part behind the bamboo curtain when Prospect pulled off the considerable coup, in 1979, of becoming the first English-speaking company to play in postrevolutionary China. It was after that extraordinary two years of touring in the production that Jacobi was asked to play the part for the BBC, securing perhaps the most sought-after role in the entire Shakespeare series.

He faced the televising of Hamlet with considerable trepidation. He was well aware of how much the part of Hamlet is still considered the ultimate test for an actor, that "hoop", as Max Beerbohm once put it, "through which, sooner or later, every eminent actor must leap." "It was a daunting thought," Jacobi said, "realizing that what I did in a studio one morning, perhaps when I felt under par,...when everything was pressurized, when we had a maximum of three takes,...would be there, frozen on tape, for students to look at twenty or thirty years from now. The essence of theater is that it is ephemeral, there and then gone. Just the idea of the performance's being preserved made me exceptionally nervous.

"I began work for the BBC determined to wipe out of my head everything I had done on the stage and to try to start from scratch, rediscovering the play with its new cast. It wasn't easy, and I learned a lot about the theater performances I had given in the process. I realized how intensely physical I had been---and all that had to be discarded. Television isn't concerned about what you do with your feet; it can hardly show how you move on an entrance or an exit. Suddenly the soliloquies have to be done to a camera two inches from your nose....I found it intensely difficult to adjust at first."

Gradually, however, Jacobi found his confidence returning: "I discovered that there were certain things I needn't discard, talismans from my theater performances that I could hold on to. I had an emotional graph of the part worked out in my head, a pattern of development in the character of Hamlet that shaped and linked the climaxes of the play. And I found the graph held good: I felt the choices and decisions I had made were the right ones--right for my Hamlet anyway--and I didn't greatly change my interpretation between stage and screen."

Jacobi was just approaching forty when he played the part for Prospect, forty-one when he recorded the television production. This sets him apart from almost all the other recent British Hamlets, most of whom have been in their early thirties when they played the part. David Warner, the most controversial and successful Hamlet in the recent past, was only twenty-four when he played the role for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1965. But Jacobi's age did not worry him since, in any case, he looks younger than his years. "Hamlet is like the part of Juliet," he said. "When you're the right age to play it, you haven't the necessary technique; when you have the technique, you're too old--unless you regard Hamlet as some eternal student figure. But if you let questions like that bother you, you'd never begin."

Jacobi studied history at Cambridge, and his interpretations are always grounded on a painstaking and close examination of the text. In rehearsal, one of his fellow actors noted, he advances cautiously, never going out on a limb or experimenting too far until he is certain he has mapped out his course. His approach is classical rather than romantic, and although in performance there may be moments of what seems sudden daring, they are usually carefully planned and minutely rehearsed. In the closet scene in the BBC Hamlet for instance, the encounter between Jacobi and Claire Bloom, who plays Gertrude, is violently physical. Jacobi at one point throws her across the bed, and what he describes as Hamlet's "verbal rape" of his mother seems to threaten to become actual rape. The scene has the power and violence of sudden improvisation; in fact it was achieved only after Jacobi and Bloom had experimented with at least nine other approaches.

The BBC version of Hamlet is an exceptionally full one; only about 500 lines have been cut, fewer than in the Prospect production, so Jacobi found himself in the interesting position of having new scenes to play, new dialogue to speak. He was aware, of course, that two great questions have over-shadowed criticism of the play and its performance for nearly four centuries: Why does Hamlet take so long to kill Claudius? And is Hamlet genuinely mad or merely feigning insanity? Typically, Jacobi did not allow either of these vexing matters, to which so many acres of print have been devoted, to dominate his approach.

"I tried not to look at such questions in isolation when I began work," he said. "Instead, I was concerned with grasping the development of the character, with discerning the progressive changes in Hamlet's psyche, with charting his progress from peak to peak in the great high points of the play. The cast and I did begin with certain background beliefs. We felt Claudius and Gertrude's affair had been going on for some time, predating the death of Hamlet's father, and that from his knowledge of that, as much as their 'o'erhasty marriage', stems the initial disgust and physical revulsion you see in Hamlet. We felt also that Hamlet and Ophelia were lovers because that accounts for the violence of Hamlet's denunciation of her in the nunnery scene. ['Nunnery' being Elizabethan parlance for brothel.] But apart from such subtextual assumptions, everything else we did was determined entirely by the words of the play itself."

The foundation stone of Jacobi's performance was his belief that, in Hamlet, Shakespeare was engaged in a daring dramatic experiment. "I felt," he said, "that Shakespeare had effected a marriage between two styles of drama: He had taken the plot of a revenge play, the kind of play already mad fashionable by writers like Kyd, and into that genre he had inserted something completely radical---characters who are deeply investigated psychologically. It was as if he had looked at the work of Kyd,...which is roughhewn, psychologically extremely simple, the emphasis all being on narrative,....and said, 'Okay, what happens if you write a revenge play in which the revenger is fundamentally ill-suited to revenge?' He has, in fact, three avengers in the play--Laertes, Fortinbras, and Hamlet--all avenging ills committed against their fathers. The first two have the old, instinctual response to revenge. For Hamlet the whole concept is, I think, anachronistic: He can't pursue it full-bloodedly, as one of Kyd's characters would; his heart may urge him on, but he is a student, a philosopher, and his mind will always start to question, to doubt. The doubts begin immediately. Even after he has seen the ghost of his warrior father, he quickly doubts the vision: 'The spirit that I have seen / May be a devil....'. In every sense, for this man, 'the time is out of joint.'"

From this concept of Hamlet as a man out of sympathy and out of sync with the role forced on him by the ghost's visitation, Jacobi's interpretation stemmed. It was not, then, that Hamlet was indecisive, he felt, but that he was miscast for the role of revenger forced upon him---an interesting concept in a play that reverberates, as Jacobi pointed out, with references to acting, to the difficulty of marrying together what seems and what is. But he did not feel that,for all his questioning, all his delays and doubt, Hamlet was a man whose head had mastered his heart.

"That's the central paradox of the character," he said, "the most fascinating aspect of the man. True, his mind never ceases working, agonizingly sometimes; Hamlet is lacerating in his self-examination. But he is also an intensely passionate man. I felt one of the keys to him was the scene with Horatio, when he says, 'Give me that man / That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him / In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart.' I think he recognizes that Horatio is such a man, but he himself is not."

Jacobi considers, as Granville-Barker did, that Hamlet's sensibility is balanced on a knife-edge. Granville-Barker wrote of the "fever" of Hamlet's brain that fractures "the surface of his mind....and gives a fascinating iridescence to the cruder colors of the story." Jacobi sensed that fever and saw it not as madness but as a kind of hypersensitivity. "Hamlet swings," he said, "into sudden intensely traumatic states. There are three supreme examples: in the scene with the ghost, in the nunnery scene with Ophelia, and in the closet scene. To a lesser degree you glimpse it in the graveyard scene, when he leaps into Ophelia's open grave and fights with Laertes. They are all occasions when he borders on what we would call madness, when he teeters on the extreme edge of sanity. But I never felt he was mad. There is an over-abundance of sensitivity, nerves as taut as a piano wire, but think he remains for the most part the sanest and most sharp-witted man in the court. I think there is no question but that the scenes with Polonius, for instance, are feigned madness. He is acting, and he takes some pleasure in the skill with which he does it.

"The Hamlet who dies at the end is a very different man from the one we see, isolated in black, in the opening scenes of the play. You might argue that he is a lesser man; I didn't concern myself with that. What is unarguable, I think, is that he is a different one. The traumatic events he has gone through have effected a violent change."

In trying to communicate that development, those three sequences he saw in the play, Jacobi felt that one small technical device was vital, a device audiences might not even pause to consider---the placing of the intermission. "I think it is essential," he said, "that it does not fall too late. When I played it for Prospect, it was in the wrong the end of the nunnery scene. For the television production, it falls in what, for me, seems exactly the right place, at the end of the players' scene, after the 'rogue and peasant-slave' soliloquy. If it's placed there, it puts an enormous physical strain on the actor playing Hamlet, but it makes psychological sense, and a lot of problems associated with the great middle section of the play disappear."

For Jacobi, this placing of the interval enabled what he sees as the three phases of the play to become clearer. "In the first section, you see Hamlet planning the means to determine Claudius' guilt, about which he remains doubtful, even when he has evolved the plan for 'The Mouse-trap', the play within the play. Then after the interval you have that extraordinary succession of scenes: the nunnery scene, the play scene, the sudden failure to kill Claudius as he is praying, and, immediately after, the closet scene in which he suddenly kills without hesitation, followed by his exile to England. I think those scenes must follow each other like a series of hammerblows. There must be no respite, either for the audience or for the Hamlet. When they happen in that way, then the inconsistencies become accountable. It is no longer odd that Hamlet should be considering killing himself at one point, organizing the performance of 'The Mouse-trap' the next, failing to kill Claudius when he might 'do it pat', and then killing Polonius in mistake for the king only minutes later. Those actions might seem inconsistent on the page, but in the theater, when you see the succession of events and the pitch they lift Hamlet to, they become utterly convincing. The stress is acute, and people under stress behave wildly and inconsistently---the whole sequence has absolute emotional and dramatic truth."

It was key to Jacobi's portrayal that this great sequence of scenes should begin with the 'To be or not to be' soliloquy and the nunnery scene with Ophelia. That for him was the moment when Hamlet comes closest to breaking, the moment when, through Ophelia's lies and evasions, he realizes the full extent of his own isolation. In the Prospect Theatre production, he attempted to heighten that effect by an innovation that will not be seen in the BBC production. The 'To be or not to be' speech was spoken not as a soliloquy at all but directed to Ophelia, with the 'Soft you now / the fair Ophelia' being spoken as a response to her attempt at interjection. Jacobi argued his case for this innovation persuasively and felt that apart from textual arguments, it made dramatic sense--Ophelia's treachery being the more acute coming after learning of Hamlet's thoughts of suicide. But his urgings failed to convince his BBC director, Rodney Bennett. On television, the speech will be spoken directly to the camera; the only concession to Jacobi's views being the fact that Ophelia is seen to enter halfway through it and could, therefore, possibly be assumed to overhear it. Jacobi was upset at the decision, but bowed to it. "The BBC's brief for the Shakespeare productions is not to be controversial but to respect tradition," he said, "and they fought shy of the idea of presenting the most famous soliloquy ever written as part of a dialogue. I think they felt that if we did that, it would be the only aspect of the production anyone would discuss afterwards, and I could see their point. But I still think I'm right, and I think it helps to make sense of what follows. But even without that device, I think--I hope--that that great sequence of scenes works, that we keep up the unbearable pitch, the relentless pressure,....because I'm convinced that if we do, no audience will pause to ask questions like 'Is Hamlet mad?', 'Why doesn't he kill Claudius after the play scene?'. They will be on the same plane of exaltation as the actors; they will be carried, like Hamlet, on the tide of those events."

After the closet scene and Hamlet's exile to England comes the encounter with Fortinbras and his army and the 'How all occasions do inform against me' soliloquy. "That is the moment, I think, when you see Hamlet begin to harden," he said. "He has already become a killer. By the time he returns from England, he will have killed two more people--Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--and will indirectly have caused Ophelia's death. When he sees Fortinbras and his army, another son avenging his father, waging a war for a patch of land, then I think he finally reaches a resolution beyond questioning or doubt. He says, 'O, from this time forth / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.' It's a sentiment he has expressed before, but earlier there was something slightly hysterical in his tone, as if he were deliberately whipping himself up. Now when he say it, I think, he means it. Certainly he does what he says. When Hamlet returns from England, I think you must see a man transformed. What was hinted at in the scene in which he watches Fortinbras and his army has happened. He is fatalistic now, as if the events before had drained him in some way. Some great suppurating wound has been cleansed, and now he is filled with a kind of cold resolution. 'A man's life is no more than to say 'One'.' He can kill now without hesitation and without compunction, and he seems to be prepared to bow before events. He will no longer try to influence them."

So for Jacobi the final killing of Claudius, after the duel, is not an act of passion. "I think he kills him," he said, "in a spirit of icy logicality. His own body is filled with poison, he is dying on his feet, and the last thing he must do is finish Claudius. On the page, what he says may sound impassioned--'Here, thou incestuous, murd'rous, damned Dane / Drink off this potion'---but I think it can be said very calmly, very coldly. There need be no rush; the action has a certain logical inevitability to it: Gertrude is dead, Claudius must follow her. He even says that--'Follow my mother". The whole pattern of events has finally worked itself out, and he himself must die. By then, I think, it has become easy for him. What's difficult is to go on living--as he asks Horatio to do."

Some critics were quick to proclaim Jacobi's stage performance "the Hamlet of his generation". He views such claims with a certain detachment, the more so when, in the interim between playing the part in the theater and the BBC production's being aired, another Hamlet, Jonathan Pryce's at the Royal Court, received similar acclaim and like assertions that it was "definitive". "Critics love that kind of term," he said wryly. "It makes a good headline, but I think it's meaningless. There is no such thing as a definitive Hamlet, or a definitive Othello or Macbeth or Richard III. The part is infinitely accommodating, infinitely adaptable. The play and the part are capable of endless reinvestigation, and that is what makes it so absorbing and so rewarding to perform. Given a certain level of technique, what happens is that each actor who plays Hamlet comes to the part with his own emotional bank. Then, he can be miserly or he can be spendthrift. All I can say is that I hope I was spendthrift. However it is assessed, I want to feel that I gave it all I had got."

Sally Beauman

The Dial, November 1980.


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