A ‘Tango’ with Derek Jacobi is something not to be missed

Derek Jacobi in the title role of "Hamlet."

I have written exactly one fan letter in my life and that was to Derek Jacobi.

I wrote it, and God forgive me, sent it, sometime between my junior and senior year in high school. I blush to disclose that the correspondence also included a sonnet I had written. Not about him, about “Hamlet.”

So, yes, I was that girl. Fat and unhappy, with the glasses and the zits. I was seeking a sanctuary in literature, building around me a tower of borrowed words: Salinger, Frost, Austen, Dickinson and Poe. And, of course, Shakespeare.

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But I never understood Shakespeare, or poetry, or the purpose of the written word, or art in general, until I saw Derek Jacobi in the 1980 BBC production of “Hamlet.”

I was not the first to experience such a revelation. Jacobi’s Hamlet had, by that point, become the toast of three continents. But living in a small town in Maryland, I certainly didn’t know that.

I knew who Jacobi was — “I, Claudius” had aired a couple of years previously. But I didn’t watch him as Hamlet because it offered a rare opportunity to see Shakespeare performed by a true Shakespearean. I still thought of Shakespeare as something to read, to memorize, to quote, and to deconstruct cleverly.

I only watched the PBS airing because my 11th grade English teacher offered it as extra credit.

And so there I stood, one Sunday night, doing the dinner dishes with my back turned to the king’s ghost stalking across the tiny black and white TV set balanced behind me on our kitchen bureau. I figured listening was good enough — it was only extra credit and we had had a pork roast that night; the pan was a mess.

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Then I heard Jacobi begin, as every Hamlet does, so weirdly obsessed with his fickle mother. Though I could hear the words I already knew, I barely recognized them. Instead of pausing to note their importance, they flashed by on their way to something else.

Jacobi had, and still has, one of the most orchestral voices in use. With his classically trained and melodic sound, his Hamlet didn’t enter declaiming. He entered as if he didn’t know what he felt exactly. Anger and sorrow, and yes, disgust. But also bewilderment, and terrible reluctance.

Hot water spilled down my front and the silverware slid about beneath my hands as I tried to watch him over my shoulder.

Then Horatio joined the prince, who was still going on about the wedding. “My father, methinks I see my father,” Hamlet said. “Where, my lord?” Horatio asked, startled and looking around, because unknown to Hamlet, Horatio had just seen the former king’s ghost. “In my mind’s eye, Horatio,” Hamlet answered with such instantly recognizable exasperation that I turned right around.

Suddenly, Hamlet wasn’t a character, he was a man. One wallowing more than a bit in his own emotions and very irritated that his friend wasn’t playing along. He wasn’t a platform for poetry, he wasn’t High Art personified. He was a person. A kind of person I might know. “In my mind’s eye, Horatio.” Duh.

And that pretty much changed everything.

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I remember walking away from the dishes and sitting down at our kitchen table while the water cooled in the sink and the soap suds dried on my hands. I did not take my eyes off that tiny screen until the play was over.

Watching Jacobi’s Hamlet, his emotionally naked, hand-wringing, elbow-clutching, reluctantly mad Hamlet, I realized that real art did not exist on a plateau removed from ordinary life. Quite the opposite. Shakespeare or Dickinson or Beethoven or Van Gogh didn’t protect you from anything. They exist and endure to connect you to everything.

When a man you do not know gives you something like that, you might be forgiven for writing him a fan letter and perhaps even enclosing a badly written sonnet.

He wrote me back. Or someone did with a lovely note of thanks written on that thrilling light blue tissue paper once used for international mail. By the time it arrived, however, embarrassment had trumped epiphany.

I am not a poet nor a Shakespearean scholar, nor was I meant to be. In the years that followed I became far more concerned with the oppression of Shakespeare’s imagined sister than his works. But I always loved Jacobi, because that moment wasn’t just a moment, it’s what he does. Every time.

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Just out of college and living in New York, I scraped together enough money to buy a good seat to “Breaking the Code,” and the moment Jacobi appeared, the term “took the stage” suddenly became clear. When he was in front of the audience, the stage and all its artifice vanished, the play became real.

Though obviously rigorous about his craft, Jacobi’s power as an actor is his ability, and willingness, to surrender. No matter what sort of person he plays, an essential humanity inevitably splits him open. His eyes grow wide with it, his mouth softens at the wonder/confusion/horror of being human before whatever intent or flaw peculiar to the character takes over.

And despite a pedigree that all but defines “thespian” — he recently redefined “King Lear” as thoroughly as he did “Hamlet” — he has always been willing to do just about anything. His list of television and film credits is Homeric and still growing.

Hitler, Francis Bacon, the crusader turned Benedictine sleuth in “Cadfael,” a jolly mortician’s assistant in “Nanny McPhee,” a nervous butler in “Gosford Park,” an archbishop in “The King’s Speech.” He’s guest-starred on “Miss Marple,” “Doctor Who,” “The Borgias” and “Frasier” (therein mocking his own Hamlet and winning an Emmy).

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He has explained Shakespeare and the theater in a variety of films, lent his voice to projects as diverse as “The Civil War” and “Angelina Ballerina.” I confess I have not made it through his narration of “The Iliad” or “The History of English Poetry,” but his reading of C.S. Lewis’ “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” may be the reason books on tape were invented.

At age 74, he is currently starring in two shows on British television — “Vicious,” a broad comedy about a tart-tongued, longtime gay couple (his costar is Ian McKellen), and “Last Tango in Halifax,” in which he plays a straight salt o’ the earth Yorkshire man rediscovering true love. “Last Tango” premieres Sunday night on PBS, and if you don’t see it, you’re missing the best new show of the fall.

In that role, Jacobi reminds us why human beings thought to act, or write, or paint, or play music, in the first place. To share who we are and what we know and how we learned it.

There is plenty of great art to be found at eye-level, but some shines from a place too distant or lies scattered among the weeds. If you are very lucky, you may happen upon an artist who is also a guide, a creative mind neither afraid of heights nor too taken with them to remember the beauty of the back garden or the kitchen sink. Someone who seems happy to share the pleasure and importance of both.

I have written exactly one fan letter in my life, and that was to Derek Jacobi.

Now I have written two.