Actor, director, writer, Dark Lord of the Sith; Ian McDiarmid is a man of many talents. As he prepares to return to the London stage in the Donmar Warehouse production of The Prince Of Homburg, he talks to Matthew Amer about his latest role.
In the corner of a cluttered production office sits Ian McDiarmid, a man who, on stage and screen, has always unnerved me.
I am a Star Wars child. I was raised on the films and, I admit, queued late at night, fuelled by the potent mix of coffee and sugar, to see the first showing of each of the prequels, no matter how disappointing, when compared to the original trilogy, I feared they might be. For me, as the Emperor, he is the embodiment of evil.
Even on stage, I last saw him perform in the Headlong production of Six Characters In Search Of An Author, another production in which he, as the father of a family desperate to tell their disturbing tale, was eminently unsettling. I had always thought there was something about his face, his eyes, that provided a natural aid to these roles.
I was wrong. In person there is a gentleness in his eyes, which sit protected behind clear-rimmed Dolce and Gabbana glasses, the only sign of any extravagance in his very simple dress; plain blue trousers, white shirt. In this situation I find it impossible to imagine him lusting after universal power.
“Bus stations don’t like theatre”
In fact, I get the distinct feeling that the less power McDiarmid has these days, the better he likes it. The former co-Artistic Director of the Almeida theatre – a role he held alongside Jonathan Kent between 1990 and 2001 – reminisces fondly about his days running a theatre. He has only one regret, that the temporary theatre they established in London’s King’s Cross towards the end of their tenure, while the Almeida’s Islington home was being refurbished, could not become permanent.
“The building resisted us,” he explains. “Bus stations don’t like theatre, but we battered it into submission in time to get Lulu open… almost on time. If we’d had a little more money and the ability to stay there then I would have taken a deep breath and I think Jonathan Kent might have too. I think we might have had another go at trying to create something a bit different.”
As he discusses the possibility of cross-channel theatrical day trips that would have been made possible by the St Pancras Eurostar terminal – “a matinee in King’s Cross and an evening performance in Paris” – and the “terrible waste” that he felt on leaving that venue, there is a hint of longing for a chance to create something special again, but it is not long before the threat of impending budgetary cuts raises its head and the optimism starts to drain away: “I do hope, although we must wait and see, that there’s not just talk of ‘Theatres must go out and raise money for themselves,’” he states, his concern apparent, “because I don’t know what anyone thinks we’ve been doing for the last 15 or so years. The Almeida would not have survived if it depended on public funding; it would have disappeared in about three weeks. What we said at the Almeida is we’re not asking so that we can spend more money and have bigger sets or a bigger cast, we’re asking you to help us survive. I fear that thesis might be presenting itself again, which would be a great pity.”
He sees a lot of his old Almeida principles in what Michael Grandage has achieved as Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse. It may well be one of the reasons that this will be the fourth time McDiarmid has appeared at the venue since Grandage took over the reins from Sam Mendes in 2002. “That’s what theatres should be doing,” he says of Grandage’s policy for spreading the Donmar’s wings to include seasons in larger London theatres, transfers to Broadway and UK and international tours, “while at the same time not losing sight of the fact that basically the Donmar is the old warehouse in the West End and that’s where everything stems from. I think that should be the aim of all theatres too, once they get themselves on a relatively strong footing.”
Yet the success that the Donmar has had in recent years, winning numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic has, he admits, “put pressure on everyone” involved in The Prince Of Homburg. They have to live up to the preceding productions. No-one wants to be involved in the production where “the queues around the block will disappear to be replaced with queues of angry protestors.” But, he says, “There is always that responsibility, but you’re there because you like the material, you like the people you’re working with and you really believe in it.”
“The Almeida would not have survived if it depended on public funding; it would have disappeared in about three weeks”
So what of the material? “It’s a very complicated play,” McDiarmid says, describing it as “twisting”, “changing”, “ambiguous” and “highly contradictory; just when you think one thing, something else happens. We’re going to provide an edge of the seat experience.”
Heinrich von Kleist’s drama, which is presented at the Donmar in a new version by Dennis Kelly, is the tale of a young Prussian commander, the eponymous Prince (played by Charlie Cox, star of films including Stardust). While a hero in the field, matters of love cause the Prince to disobey orders, much to the dismay of the strict disciplinarian Elector (McDiarmid). “I think probably it’s heart is tragic,” McDiarmid says of the piece, “but there’s an ironic edge that runs throughout it.”
The Donmar, he thinks, provides an ideal setting for the piece, the intimacy of the theatre meaning the audience “can almost examine our eyeballs minute by minute to see what they’re doing. It’s very much a play where that pays off because people are often shifty and always shifting their position when the ground gets a little muddy under their feet.
“[The Donmar’s] like a crucible,” he continues. “You can pour all the ingredients in at half past seven, the touch paper is lit and anything can happen. The audience feel immediately involved; it’s up to us to make sure they stay that way, of course.”
Born in Carnoustie, Scotland, in 1944, McDiarmid says he always knew he was an actor, even though, as a child, he was unsure quite how to express this. It took until he had completed his MA in clinical psychology for him to finally take the plunge and commit to performing, though he sees the similarities in the driving forces of the two professions: “They’re all about being interested in people, how they operate, the many choices we al have to make.”
“I’ve got a very big idea that scares me, which is a very good starting point”
He could surely have left theatre behind by now, should the whim have taken him, and embarked on a far more lucrative career in the movies. He starred, after all, in arguably the biggest series of films ever made, George Lucas’s Star Wars movies; if he had wanted to, he could have retired on the money he could make just from signing merchandise. But there is something about theatre that has hooked this soft-featured man since he was a child.
It could be that, as he says, theatre is “a medium that implodes. Every time you do it, it blows itself up. The play disappears. The set goes out the door and another set appears. That’s where it lives and that’s what’s great about it.”
It could also be that, even in his mid-60s, he is finding entirely new areas of theatre to explore. Just last year the Donmar Warehouse hosted Be Near Me, after McDiarmid turned his hand to writing and adapted the play from Andrew O’Hagan’s novel. The National Theatre of Scotland, which co-produced the show and which McDiarmid can’t speak highly enough of, even managed to twist his arm to sit as a non-executive director on its board.
“I’ve got a couple of things in my head,” he says of future projects, though, as with his acting career, he intends to keep his writing as diverse as possible. “I’ve got a very big idea that scares me,” he smiles, his tongue poking cheekily from between his lips, “which is a very good starting point.”
Talk of fear makes me think of McDiarmid’s press night performance in the Rupert Goold-directed Headlong production of Six Characters In Search Of An Author; fear on my part because, if my research was to be believed, the actor does not like talking about it, and because it is a tale of possible peril played out in front of an unsuspecting audience. At least, that is how the story of his press night heart attack plays out in my mind, but it is certainly not how McDiarmid tells it, which, by the way, he is more than happy to do.
“It wasn’t me being brave or being valiant or any of these things that they love to make out that you’re being. It was lucky”
“I didn’t know what was happening when it was happening. I never eat before a show, but I thought ‘You’ve done it before, for goodness sake, give yourself a sandwich.’ It was all going fine, except there was this thing here,” he explains, pointing to his chest and grimacing. “That irritated me because when you have something wrong with you, whether it’s just indigestion, you can’t get full emotional release. So I thought when I come to lose it [in the show], I won’t be able to because I’ll be aware of this thing. That irritated me as an actor.
“I didn’t think anything serious was happening at the time, but by the end of the performance I did. I knew that it was just as well the play was going to stop, because I would have had to stop. But it timed itself. It wasn’t me being brave or being valiant or any of these things that they love to make out that you’re being. It was lucky. It timed itself well.”
It is not actually talking about his heart attack that frustrates him, but the fact that the story was printed without his permission. He had successfully completed the press night performance without giving any indication to the assembled critics that he was struggling and without drawing any attention away from the play, yet later, after the opening night interest had died down, the story of his heart attack emerged and he found himself fielding phone calls from well-wishers worried for his health. “It wasn’t anybody else’s business. It hadn’t affected the performance. I really resented that.”
“I had to simulate a heart attack in John Gabriel Borkman [which he performed at the Donmar Warehouse in 2007]. I had to have one on stage,” he smiles. “I talked to a cardiologist then about what sort of things I’d have to do. [The press night heart attack] didn’t happen until I was in the dressing room afterwards, but I thought ‘Oh, it’s the John Gabriel Borkman scene.”
That, I guess, is the mark of the born actor. Even in the most precarious of realities, he finds the drama, the theatre and the humour.