Ian McDiarmid to tour show based on Julian Barnes stories about ageing

A pair of Julian Barnes stories about old age are to be performed by Ian McDiarmid in a one-man show touring the UK this autumn.

Michael Grandage will direct The Lemon Table, which adapts two tales with a musical theme from Barnes’s 2004 story collection of the same name. In Vigilance, a concertgoer is driven into a fury by the fidgeting, rustling and vigorous throat-clearing of his fellow audience members. In The Silence, an unnamed composer modelled on Sibelius reflects on his career and how silence follows both music and life.

McDiarmid, 76, said that he was drawn to how the stories in The Lemon Table consider ageing not with an elegiac or regretful air but with defiance and “an attitude that is more: so what?". The way Barnes writes about mortality is engaging, necessary and not depressing, added the actor, who has adapted the stories himself. Talking about death, as the composer in The Silence observes, is a useful and companionable activity, McDiarmid suggested. The characters in both monologues feel a need to confess, Egli ha detto, “maybe because they’re getting close to the end of their life”.

The Scottish actor, who played Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars films, has previously performed The Silence for a BBC Radio 3 recording used to fill the interval of a classical music broadcast. For years he thought it would work well on the stage, pure. When he came to re-read the collection of stories before lockdown he alighted on Vigilance, whose fuming concertgoer is thwarted in his attempts to listen to Shostakovich without distraction. Shostakovich has been switched to Sibelius for the adaptation in order to link the two pieces. Barnes, who had written to McDiarmid many years ago after the BBC broadcast of The Silence, welcomed the idea of the adaptation.

“One of the reasons I like [Barnes’s] writing so much is that it doesn’t conform to any particular pattern,” said McDiarmid. “His next book is quite likely to be completely different to the last, in form as well as content.”

Grandage said McDiarmid had been his collaborator and mentor for more than a quarter of a century. “We’ve worked together many times, many of those times on tour – we both believe passionately in presenting work to as wide an audience as possible.”

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