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Heartbreak House, Chichester Festival Theatre, July 6-August 25
DEREK Jacobi’s time as artistic director at Chichester in 1995 and 1996 left him with one overriding memory – that he didn’t want to do it again.
“I was artistic director for a year really, flying on the coat-tails of [co-director] Duncan Weldon,” he says after a day of rehearsals for the 50th anniversary production of George Bernard Shaw’s classic Heartbreak House.
“It convinced me that it wasn’t for me – board meetings and decision-making and planning and things really is not my métier. I’m a follower rather than a leader, and I prefer to be up there acting than doing all that planning and organising.
“In the acting world there are actors who can – I’m thinking particularly of Kenneth Branagh who I’m glad to know very well. He’s a meteor in our business – when he was in his 20s he was planning and organising and playing. I have a lot of time for somebody like that.”
Jacobi’s role as Captain Shotover in Shaw’s play of ideas, Heartbreak House, is a distant echo of the actor’s first Chichester performance in the 1963 take on the Irish playwright’s Saint Joan.
“Captain Shotover is a lovely role,” says Jacobi. “But what I like very much about the play is that it’s a company play – there is no star. Shotover is a relatively small part in it – he keeps coming on and off throughout the evening. There’s no pressure. This time last year I was playing King Lear – and there was a lot of pressure there.
He makes Shotover quite relaxing!”
The eccentric Shotover is a retired sea captain, and the host of the party where Heartbreak House is set, just as the rumblings of the First World War can be felt.
The action initially centres around the pragmatic guest Ellie Dunn, who causes consternation when she announces she has decided to marry for money rather than love, dividing her family.
But as the party progresses other secrets come tumbling out.
“They are wonderful characters – all have their own arcs and development,” says Jacobi. “It’s a very satisfying play. We have trimmed it slightly – it is a very long piece and it isn’t heavy on action, although it is heavy on ideas and talk.
It was originally in three acts, and we have moved it so it only has one interval – two can make it feel like a long evening!”
Although it was penned in 1920, the play still has particular resonances today – not least when Shotover rages about “those hogs to whom the universe is nothing but a machine for greasing their bristles and filling their snouts”.
“Some of the lines about big business and capitalism are really talking about the banking crisis – it is very relevant today,” says Jacobi.
“Although it was written after the war, it is set just before 1914, so there is a feeling of doom not only in the text but also the soundscape of the piece and the lighting – they all contrive to the feeling of an approaching cataclysm.”
Having enjoyed such a long history with Chichester, Jacobi confesses he is looking forward to returning to Oaklands Park.
“It’s lovely to come out of a matinee knowing you haven’t got an evening show because you’re in rep with another play,” he laughs.
“The theatre is one that actors have to get used to – it’s big and it’s not the easiest space in the world, it’s quite an eccentric space. Once you have cracked it though it is very audience and actor-friendly. I was here 49 years ago, and many times since, so it is full of memories and stories from each play.
“Originally when the idea of Chichester – a theatre in a park in the South Downs – was mooted, people all said, ‘Who will go and see anybody there?’ “Right from the start it has been innovative and progressive and developing – especially with this new refurbishment coming up next year. It is very vibrant, and with all the shows which have transferred to the West End it punches above its weight. I think the more theatres there are like Chichester the merrier.”
As for Jacobi himself, his next move after Heartbreak House is uncertain.
“For the past 18 months I’ve had my nose to the grindstone with TV, film and theatre, with last year heavily devoted to Lear.
“I’m going to see what happens. The role I would most like to play now hasn’t yet been written – I would like to do something nobody has ever seen before – not a Shakespeare or classic part that could be compared to 600 other actors – something new and original.
“Hopefully it’s waiting for me out there.”
*Starts 7.30pm, with 2.15pm matinees, tickets from £14. Call 01243 781312.