Star Wars star Ian McDiarmid takes to the Guildford stage

Ian McDiarmid returns to the stage post-pandemic in the world premiere of Julian Barnes’ The Lemon Table, directed by Michael Grandage, with dates including Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre from November 9-13.

Ian McDiarmid by Johan Persson
Ian McDiarmid by Johan Persson

The promise is a darkly funny and beautifully written evening that celebrates our return to live performance and the artists that make it.

A play in two parts, The Lemon Table celebrates a love of music, live performance and life itself. In the first half we are introduced to an obsessive concert goer who goes to unorthodox lengths to enjoy his evening. In the other, the concert’s composer reflects on the music he has created – his successes, his failures and the life he has lived.

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For Ian, it offers two solo pieces: “It is just me! I get to do everything, to produce all the music of it, but really I am there in the service of a wonderful text. I wish there were at least 50 others with me on stage and that we were doing a major Shakespeare production or something of that nature. I do think this is a time for big shows, and I think that in the end they will pay for themselves.

“But I am very happy to be back meeting real flesh-and-blood audiences once again,” says Ian whose illustrious career has included long stints in the Royal Shakespeare Company and playing the infamous Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars film franchise.

“I didn’t really do much work (during the lockdowns). I am privileged. I have got a place in Scotland on the coast and if you are going to be confined anywhere, that’s the place to be. I did do a couple of radio plays. I did The Tempest for Radio 3 which will coincide with the climate conference, and that was great. It was practically an all-Scottish cast.”

Now, it is back to the stage: “There is no more nervousness than usual coming back. There are just the usual things as you approach the first preview, the first time you test it in front of an audience when you see whether they are going to be interested in what you have to offer, the first time you meet your audience.

“But I love the pieces very much. Julian Barnes is a very fine writer, and I read these stories years and years ago, and we recorded the last one for the radio years and years ago, about a composer that most people would guess is Sibelius, and I did it for the interval of a prom concert. I thought it might make an interesting piece for the theatre and it didn’t get any further than that. That was many years ago, and I corresponded with Julian Barnes about it.”

Now the project is taking off, with the composer piece alongside another from the collection, two very contrasting characters in two short plays.

“The first character is an irate concert-goer. He hates it when there are interruptions from mobile phones or from people coughing, and he wants silence. And then the second character is Sibelius in the last year of his life and he is obsessed with silence, but of his own. He has been unable to start his 8th Symphony...”