From Star Wars to Cambridge Arts Theatre... Actor Ian McDiarmid talks about The Lemon Table
- Credit: Marc Brenner
Stars Wars actor Ian McDiarmid brings to Cambridge Arts Theatre The Lemon Table – based on two humorous short stories by Julian Barnes. He spoke to Angela Singer about two irascible characters.
Audiences might be extra careful not to rustle sweet papers, shine the lights from their mobile phone or whisper to each other during performances of The Lemon Table.
This will not be just because the actor in this one-man show is the award-laden Ian McDiarmid, who played the fearsome Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars.
No, we see the Shakespearean actor in different roles here. McDiarmid has adapted for the stage two of a collection of short stories by writer Julian Barnes, called The Lemon Table.
In Vigilance, he plays a concert-goer so obsessed with quietening the people in front of him he resorts to violence.
The story starts with the gleeful line: “I poked the German.”
McDiarmid, a former artistic director of the Almeida Theatre, is actually quite gracious about people coughing if they can’t help it but has tales to tell about mobiles.
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“When we ran the Almeida, we thought there must be some kind of electrical mechanism to stop phones ringing so we investigated it and indeed there was but we weren’t allowed to employ it. Some people do have to be contacted in any circumstances.
“It happened a lot. Various actors dealt with it in various ways. One actor just said: 'Tell them we’re busy'.”
The humour, he says “united everybody – you have to remember the rest of the audience doesn’t want phones ringing either".
He guesses it wasn't a doctor on call.
“They would have been particularly careful. Though there was one person I remember. The show was about to start and I was at the end of one of the aisles and this person got up and started to make a phone call.
"The lights were just going down. I said what are you doing? She said: ‘You don’t realise, I am a lawyer.’
"I said: 'You don’t realise, this is a theatre, go outside if you have to do it'.”
The other Barnes short story is called The Silence, inspired by the life of the Finnish composer Sibelius and his unsuccessful struggle – over his final decades – to complete an eighth symphony.
“I did it on Radio 3, shortly after it was published as an interval piece during the Proms.
"I had an encouraging letter from Julian Barnes and I saw it had dramatic possibilities. The original plan was to take it to the Edinburgh Festival.”
He adds: “Both the stories are about many things, like all Julian’s work. They are both about silence.
"In Vigilance, the neurotic concert-goer is desperate to achieve silence. The character says we’ve got to be civilised and he has behaved in a totally uncivilised manner in order to have a civilised evening. That’s the one central irony and one particularly these days we can appreciate.
“In the other story, the attitude to silence is two-fold. Sibelius needs it to write his work but he hasn’t been able to complete or perhaps even start his eighth symphony for 30 years.
"So that is a particular silence of aggravation. In both stories there is a central character with a partner and a relationship that’s really rocky and that gives the evening much of its emotional tension.”
Says McDiarmid: “Both are pretty complicated characters and that’s always interesting to play. Both are of a certain age. That’s Sibelius’s great line: 'Cheer up, death is round the corner.'”
Despite the regret and the gloom, there is a strong thread of humour in Barnes’s writing.
Vigilance begins with the character declaring “I poked the German” as he first gets the attention of the whispering audience member sitting in front of him.
“I particularly wanted to do The Silence and then when I saw Vigilance, all the work was done for me. They are both first person narratives. I didn’t have to add anything. His words have their own rhythm as stage monologues.
“He delights in the fact, and I like it too, that nothing is dead set. Things are perhaps true or perhaps not. It’s up to you to speculate, which is a good thing for an audience to do.
"I can see different people think different things at the same time – frankly, that’s why you act."
And has Barnes seen the show? “He came to see at The Salisbury Playhouse and said that he was pleased that his earlier jokes still work.”
Audience reactions have been “wide and varied” McDiarmid says, “but on the whole welcoming".
There is what he describes as “talking in frank terms – bad language. People losing their temper.” These explosive expletives come as a shock because the characters are so otherwise genteel.
McDiarmid says: “Both of the characters have come along to explain and probably justify what they’ve done and what they feel, but they haven’t come along to confess or apologise or atone.
"They’ve come along to assert. This is an evening of two people, whatever you think of them, who have come to assert their position to a live audience. Not a bad time to do that.
“Julian Barnes wrote very eloquently about old age. What comes across in all the short stories is a determination not to go out with a whimper – to go out with a sense of spirit. Not quietly. They are going to go out with a bit of a fight.”
The Lemon Table is at Cambridge Arts Theatre from Tuesday, November 2 to Saturday, November 6.