Whether you know him by name or you’ve seen his face on the big screen, it’s clear that Ian McDiarmid is likely one of the best actors out there, and an absolute fan favourite too (especially with the Star Wars franchise as Emporer Palpatine aka Darth Sidious). Stepping aside from his fame in the sci-fi-filled world (though the urge to recite his lines like “I am the senate” is overbearingly strong), McDiarmid has also spent plenty of his time mostly in theatre. More specifically, with the Royal Shakespeare Company since 1974, appearing in numerous Shakespeare stage productions such as Hamlet (1972), The Tempest (1974) and many more!
Differing from his acting in Shakespearean plays, The Lemon Table – originally based on the book written by Julian Barnes – sees McDiarmid with wittiness and charm, as well as great control over his mannerisms and character identity. The Lemon Table is a darkly funny and beautifully written show, composed of two parts, labelled ‘Vigilance’ and ‘The Silence’. Both stories are different in tone yet still relate to each other in the sense of classical music.
So What is it About?
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, annoyed and distracted at the smaller sounds and interruptions that happen in the concert hall, will go to unorthodox lengths to enjoy his evening. In the other half, the concert’s composer reflects on the music he has created – whether it is good or not; his successes, his failures; and the life he has lived, or if he has truly lived at all. The setting on the stage stays relatively the same visually in both parts: a long table; two chairs; a slatted wooden floor; an enormous picture frame (slightly broken at its base); accompanied by grey drapes.
Part 1 – Vigilance: Comedic Gold
Hilarious, quite relatable, and a bit ironic at times, McDiarmid in this story talks about the small little disruptions that occur when watching a classical concert; and yet, those exact disruptions were happening in the theatre! The speed at which this is narrated is a little fast – though it feels quite energetic – and there’s a lot of information that you gain throughout. A new thing to me was hearing McDiarmid swear (which caught me off guard, but it was just absolutely hilarious and really suited the character – the profound frustration and speaking true feelings made it feel natural).
Aside from McDiarmid uttering the words “You Fucking Cunt”, which the crowd roared with laughter at (though I kind of never thought I’d hear him say that), and him having a good ramble about pretending to be a concert ambassador, there are some heartfelt moments – including his character’s relationship with his ex-partner Andrew. It seems that after an altercation with him and another person, everything went sour between them, and now Andrew refuses to go to shows with him, which leads to McDiarmid’s character being nit-picky about the sounds in the orchestra hall.
Part 2 – The Silence: Philosophical and In-Depth
Our second half of this production is less comedic and more complex in its language and overall story. Though the terminology at times can be a little fancy, the narrative is at least clear. McDiarmid visibly ages twenty years to become the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius towards the end of his life. This is a darker, more reflective piece that contains less humour, with the added dedication of suffering from increasing hand tremors that make work difficult. Alcoholism seems to take the best of him – he is self-medicating as a replacement for his eighth symphony (which was never completed). Finally, two days before his death, he sees this flock of cranes, before his last lines asking for a lemon.
The symbolism of a lemon (or lemons) is quite frequent throughout, and though sometimes it may not be obvious, the metaphors are there. With a physical appearance of a singular lemon from McDiarmid’s overcoat pocket (because nothing says dramatic build-up like slowly pulling a yellow citric sphere out of your coat), the use of lemon is – as described by McDiarmid – a representation of death. A bit of a grizzly anecdote, but one that makes sense at the end when his character requests a lemon. I thought to myself, “could this mean he’s going to die?” And of course, with the history explained, it was some great foreshadowing and the display of a great metaphor.
My Overall Thoughts on The Lemon Table
Obviously, when I saw McDiarmid appear walking down the side of the stalls up onto the stage, I was kind of in awe (it’s not often you get to see someone you’ve watched on the big screen appear on the stage only a few metres away from you). But once he started, I felt the character he was portraying come to life immediately. I can happily say that it was a pleasure to see this event live at HOME. McDiarmid is such a joy to watch on stage, and though sometimes I was worried about him falling off the table as he climbed on and off (though unlikely), I enjoyed his performance thoroughly.
Looking for more theatre content? Why not have a read of the last couple of theatre reviews I did, both for shows at 53two: Little Boxes was a one-woman show about Joann Condon’s experiences throughout life as a plus-size actress, going through the boxes in her attic that each tells a different story that will make you laugh and cry. Alternatively, check out my review for Timeless – a show that paints the comedic yet very grounding reality of suffering from anterograde amnesia.
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