The demise of repertory theatre, where young actors once learned their craft in a resident company, has taken its toll on vocal technique with words “becoming less important” in live performance, according to one of the nation’s most acclaimed stars of stage and screen.
Sir Derek Jacobi told the Observer that “the use of voice, the magic of voice, has all but disappeared [in the theatre]”.
He called for actors and directors “to bring back a sense of vocal expertise, to make the words more important than the sight”. He said: “One of the magic things in the theatre – the uniqueness of the theatre – is the sound. The voice that can fill an auditorium from the front row to the back of the gods is thrilling.”
He added: “It’s the use of voice to express feeling and to lift the words off the page and inhabit them and give them a soul and a sense of feeling and a life.”
Jacobi, who honed his craft with the Birmingham Rep, is about to receive the lifetime achievement award at this year’s Olivier Awards, Britain’s most prestigious stage honours.
Organised by the Society of London Theatre, the ceremony takes place on 2 April at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
It pays tribute to Jacobi’s “remarkable” 60-year career on stage and screen, with acclaimed performances in Shakespeare, both in film and theatre, on the small screen – including I, Claudius and Last Tango in Halifax – and in films such as The King’s Speech.
Jacobi won Olivier Awards for Cyrano de Bergerac and Twelfth Night, and in 1994 was awarded a knighthood for his services to theatre.
He was a founding member of the Royal National Theatre, enlisted by Laurence Olivier himself.
“He saw me at the Birmingham Rep. The first job he gave me was playing Laertes to Peter O’Toole’s Hamlet, and I stayed with him for the next seven years,” Jacobi said.
He joked that Olivier could also be “a bugger”, even making him cry in one rehearsal. “I was taking over from Albert Finney, a big star. Olivier came to watch the rehearsal. and was vitriolic to me. He hated what he saw and told me so. I was no Albert Finney and I needed to be told that.”
Asked whether Olivier gave constructive criticism, he recalled: “At the time, I thought no. I went away and cried. But of course it was. He wouldn’t destroy just for the sake of destroying. He was better than that. If he destroyed, he created at the same time.”
Of his three years with the Birmingham Rep, he recalled: “We [performed] a new play every four weeks. When I first went, I was absolutely the complete amateur. I was surrounded by very good professional actors and it was a great learning experience.”
He argued that the loss of repertory theatre has devalued “the art of acting”: “People think that they can enter the world of acting by the back door – ‘don’t need anything, I can do it now, I’ve got the talent to do it’ – without putting in the basic ground work which the reps always gave you.”
David Grindrod, a leading casting director, said: “Sometimes you need a star name to sell a show.” But, ultimately, training is everything and he too laments the demise of repertory theatre.
With typical modesty, Jacobi said of his forthcoming Olivier award: “It means a great deal. I’ve been at it for 63 years now. I’ve had a lot of luck during that time. This is the icing on the cake.”