Every season, it would appear, Broadway clasps an Englishman to its bosom, gushes over his technique, his diction, his stature, his very Englishness, and vigorously proclaims that this is what acting is all about.
One year, it was John Wood. Then it was Ian McKellan. And then it was Jeremy Irons, whose additional qualifications as a heartthrob added several decibels to the hoopla.
This year, it's Derek Jacobi, a slightly pudgy, fairly unprepossessing man of 46, who has performed a double whammy by starring in alternating productions of "Much Ado About Nothing" and "Cyrano" under the imprimatur of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Shakespeare and Rostand. Elizabethan couplets and French alexandrines. Cerebral wit and swashbuckling panache. And sometimes both in the same day.
The New York critics not only pitched their fedoras in the air, but a fair share of their outer garments, as well. Jacobi, thought one, was "in many ways the definitive Cyrano," while another found that his Benedick belonged to "the aristocracy of comic acting."
The object of such extravagant praise hasn't read a word of it. "I don't read the notices until the run is over," says Jacobi, who will be performing both roles for a month at the Kennedy Center Opera House, beginning Thursday. "Of course, you know if they've been good or bad, when you see the expressions on people's faces the next morning. In the past, I've had people ring me up and say 'Wonderful, wonderful notices -- don't read The Times -- but the rest are wonderful.' And these are friends. So you know you've bombed in The Times. Or someone will say to me, 'I don't know what they're talking about. They couldn't have seen the same show I saw.' Then you know the notices are rotten.
"Acting's difficult enough and there are some problems you can get rid of. One of them is what reading the critics does to me emotionally. I mean if the notices are bad, or even indifferent, you want to kill yourself. And if they're good, you go on stage remembering this is the moment the critics all raved about and you end up acting the reviews. It puts so many pressures in my head that I thought, 'No, I'll read reviews in a year's time and I'll get out of them what I can then.' Once you've made up your mind to do that, the relief is wonderful."
In about an hour, Jacobi will begin the hour's makeup job that transforms him into Cyrano, the heartsick troubadour with the flowing tresses and "the strawberry Punchinello nose." It is, he says, the more difficult of the two roles. "Benedick is really much more of my own personality. I'm not upfront casting for Cyrano and I've had to find the areas of myself which I don't use often -- anger, bluster, bravura, that look-at-me kind of spectacular show-offy thing."
As he talks, he studiously avoids the mirror above his dressing table in the Gershwin Theatre. "I have a thing about mirrors," he explains. "I can't look in them. I suppose it's inverted vanity. I don't like what I see. As a teen-ager, from 11 to 19, I suffered from the most appalling acne and couldn't bear to look at myself. These were the days before cover-ups and all that. At home, we had a bookcase with glass doors, and I could look in the bookcase to comb my hair or tie my tie, because it gave a reflection of me, but it didn't show my complexion. But that was the only mirror I'd look in. It's stuck with me."
Even now, he uses a round hand-mirror, the size of a sand dollar, when he applies his stage makeup. This way, he sees only one eye at a time, or a mouth or a nose, but never the ensemble. Only when the job's well under way and the disguise taking shape will he permit himself a full look.
The idiosyncrasy is characteristic of the man -- a self-effacing, soft-spoken creature who admits, for example, that "sitting at prominent tables at the Russian Tea Room is something that I couldn't possibly do," and who, on the other hand, takes to the planks with the aplomb of a conquistador. He will tell you cheerfully that he's "a complete incompetent" in life, that his chief offstage quality is his "dullness" and that, growing up, he was "always a bit of a swat," which is Brit-talk, apparently, for a goodie-goodie. But let him stride out before an audience -- once he's gotten over the stage fright that at one point in his career had him retching into buckets -- and he blazes.
"I'm a true Libra," he says. "That means I live in a state of frozen animation. I can't make decisions. There are no great explosions in my life. I describe it by saying that I don't really have temperament offstage. I don't fling things around my dressing room and scream and shout. If I'm angry, I get very quiet and walk away from violence. I'm a coward, I suppose. Had I been old enough during the war, I would have been a pacifist. I just don't like waves. Whatever temperament I have happens in my work."
Indeed, Jacobi's voice, which on stage is capable of operatic effects, seems to be lulling a babe in a cradle. Its mellifluousness is only slightly deepened by the cold he has been fighting since he arrived here in October. To keep functional, three times a week he consults a vocal coach. "He's given me exercises for massaging the tongue, because if I have a relaxed tongue, I won't have a sore throat," Jacobi says. "A child's voice is totally free. But adults are told to button their lips, keep a stiff upper lip, hold their tongues. So we all end up by bottling up everything inside, jaws tight. And the tongue is one of the seats of that stored-up emotion. My coach was telling me that sometimes if he massages the tongues of his students a great deal, some of them actually start crying."
Possibly as further precaution, more pedestrian remedies -- a pot of honey and a carton of salt for gargling -- sit on his dressing table, while a humidifier feeds moisture into the room, rendering the atmosphere similar to that of a rain forest.
There is something Walter Mittyish about Jacobi, a vague dreaminess about the blue eyes and a suggestion of poignance to the mouth, which in repose assumes a natural downward cast. "I do think that acting for a large number of actors is our way of coping with shyness," he says. "On the other hand, lots of actors -- I almost said performers -- have great personalities offstage. Maybe that's the difference between an actor and a performer -- the performer is as big offstage as he is on and rather enjoys showing himself off."
In which case, Jacobi is an actor -- "the ultimate leading man" and "an actor of the century here in England" in the view of Terry Hands, the RSC's joint artistic director, who staged both "Cyrano" and "Much Ado." "He's still going to be going strong in the year 2000," says Hands. "Oh, he'll be getting on a bit, but why not? He doesn't fall into any categories; he's unique. His wit and agility are unmatched by any actor I've known. And the new depth he's developed with Cyrano really puts him in a protean position in the business. He also has this ability to operate at full power in disguise. Most actors who disguise themselves are limited by it. They hide in the disguise. Derek doesn't. Disguise liberates him."
"I know that when I'm acting, I'm in control," reflects Jacobi. "I'm making the choices. In a sense, I'm the powerful one, because I know what's going to happen, and it's up to me to lead 1,800 people with me nightly. That's why I enjoy it. Out there, I'm a leader of men. It's much more my space. In every other space, I'm in someone else's power."
He says, for instance, that he allows himself regularly to be bullied by salesmen "and I have many insurance policies to prove it." He gets so discombobulated in clothing stores that "I go into that little cubicle, try something on and say, 'Yes, yes, it's lovely.' And it's not lovely at all. It's too big." Although he rather enjoys pushing a "trolley" up and down supermarket aisles, "I'm not happy until it's full to overflowing with a couple of ferns and plants which, of course, I don't need but can't seem to resist." Recently, he sold his London house south of the Thames in order to purchase a more fashionable residence in the Hampstead section. "The experience very nearly put me in a mental institution," he sighs.
From earliest childhood, when he dressed up "in mum's and dad's clothes," however, he was sure of one thing: He wanted to be an actor. "I have to earn my living and basically I cannot, nor do I want to, nor do I feel any desire whatsoever, to do anything else," he says. "I'm totally uncreative in every other way. But I've been given a gift for acting. Call it a vocation -- a compulsion -- I must use it."
Hands likens him to a "mad monk" of the theater, adding that despite "ferocious schedules like the one at the RSC" and injury-inviting roles like Cyrano, which requires him to swing on chandeliers and duel with an army of men single-handedly, Jacobi has rarely missed a performance. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, however, proved his undoing. Photographing it from his hotel window, the actor was particularly captivated by the Woody Woodpecker balloon floating by, climbed up on a radiator to get a better shot, slipped and cracked his rib. He showed up at the Gershwin the next day, gave two performances, and then a third the following day, before collapsing.
"Ten years on the stage and nothing happens. Give him one day off and he busts a rib, photographing a woodpecker!" rails Hands, satirically. "He missed six performances and you've never seen a more remorseful actor. The apologies he made for not being able to go on were absolutely abject." Hands, however, seized the occasion to issue a publicity-generating press release: "RSC Actor Felled by Balloon."
Jacobi's father was the manager of a department store in East London, his mother was the boss' secretary, and "until I came along, they'd never read a word of Shakespeare, never been to the theater. They did suspect they'd fostered a rather bright child who would attend university." While he was more or less expected to become a professional man, a doctor or a lawyer, Jacobi credits his parents for putting no obstacles in his way when he started acting at school and the local library.
He fulfilled some of their expectations by going to Cambridge, then started his slow climb up through England's repertory companies, beginning with the Birmingham Rep, then the National Theatre under Sir Laurence Olivier. Jacobi tends to blither slightly when asked about Olivier, whom he considers still with a fair amount of awe as both mentor and friend. "That was my drama school," he says, "and what better drama school could there be? To be in that company in the mid-1960s -- well, it was kind of a golden era. Every production was extraordinary. To sit around and watch Sir, Maggie, Sir John, Sir Michael, Joan and Dame Sybil!" That, of course, is the initiate's way of referring to Olivier, Smith, Gielgud, Redgrave, Plowright and Thorndike.
"I was young then," he says, "and when you're what's known as 'young and promising,' it's really the best category to be in. You've got nothing to lose. There are no pressures on you, no reputation to worry about. As long as the jobs come, you're as courageous as a lion. A lot of passions are torn to tatters, but along the way you learn technique, craft, art."
In 1982, Jacobi was invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he reconfirmed his stardom by playing, in addition to Benedick and Cyrano, the title role in "Peer Gynt" and Prospero in "The Tempest." Such performances have long since vaulted him into what he sees as the second category for actors: "experienced and successful." What's the next hurdle? "Well, what might be coming up," he muses, "is the hardest category of all, the one you started out wanting to be in. That's 'distinguished and acclaimed.' Then you've got all the pressures on you. You're no longer the outsider, you're the favorite in the race, the guy with the money on his neck. You've got to come up with the goods every time, win the race or at least come in a good second."
Hands believes Jacobi's chances for getting there "are really quite good. At the moment, his professional image is 'experienced and successful,' but his mental attitude is 'young and promising.' He has one more step to go professionally and two more steps mentally. Despite this tremendous strength he has before an audience, there still exists in Derek a very young, often very insecure and extremely humble actor who sees himself on the way up. He has far more difficulties at the beginning of rehearsals than he needs to and it leads him, in some of his work, to look for approval when it is automatic, anyway."
Although Jacobi's stage career has won him a devoted following -- including a fan club consisting of a dozen proper, middle-aged English ladies, who pinched their pounds and flew to New York for his Broadway opening -- his widest renown stems from the 1977 television series, "I, Claudius." Initially, the psychopathic Roman emperor was to be played by two actors -- one, as the young man; the second, as the aged tyrant. "They were looking for big names and by the time they got to me, they were scraping the bottom of the barrel," says Jacobi, who trotted out his most ingratiating manner and convinced the producers to give him both roles. Endowing Claudius with a limp, a stammer (based on a fellow Cambridge student) and a congenital clumsiness, Jacobi came up with a doozy of a characterization that, in Hands' estimation "lifted him into the big league. It goes back to my point -- that Derek's full power is released in disguise."
After three years on a fixed salary, Jacobi plans to take a leave of absence from the RSC and pursue more lucrative assignments in film and TV once he returns to England. "I do have to get the finances up a bit and the face around a bit," he says. "The kudos you can get on television or from films, you can plow back into the theater. People will put bums on seats in theaters to see that guy they saw on the telly."
But he's not so sure he's got the stuff of a movie actor. "I can look nicer on stage, because people are 30 yards away," he says. To date, his appearances in such movies as "The Day of the Jackal" and "The Odessa File" have been, as he puts it, "as the friend of the friend of the friend of the hero. I suppose because of that I find the whole process of filmmaking rather boring. All day I'd be sitting around doing crosswords in canvas chairs, while everyone else had all the fun. I'd like to make one Hollywood movie, playing a lead role so I'd be involved all the time. But I'm afraid my heart doesn't lie in films. My bank manager's heart lies in films."
Repertory theater is his true "call of duty," although his abiding timorousness seems to resurface every night during the curtain call. "The curtain call is an art I've never learned," he says. "Mine really are the worst things. I do them reprehensibly." He took his first solo bow more than 20 years ago in "Black Comedy" -- "I rushed on, nodded and rushed off," he remembers -- and was sternly lectured afterwards by a furious Olivier, who informed him that if that was all he could muster by way of a curtain call, he'd never make it as an actor. "I do try," Jacobi says. "I'm getting better. But I know I still give off this air that says, 'I'd really rather not be here. Thank you for thanking us, but can you make it quick, because I'm terribly embarrassed.' "
He laughs. "I really should live in one of those bubbles and just be let out to go on stage. The breath of the real world I find very difficult to cope with."