Ian McDiarmid is magnificent in the two pieces which make up The Lemon Table, taken from Julian Barnes’s 2004 collection of short stories of the same name.
In the first, Vigilance, we meet an elderly concertgoer who, in devising strategies to deal with fellow audience members who cough, rustle programmes or talk during the performance, has moved from a simple poke in the shoulder to a much more devastating and emotionally satisfactory solution.
In the second, The Silence, we encounter an elderly Scandinavian composer, clearly Sibelius, angry with the world and himself, and frustrated by his declining powers. It is in this story that we learn the significance of the title. The composer explains that, in Chinese culture, the lemon is the symbol of death. He regularly meets his elderly friends at a local café where they discuss life, and death, sitting around ‘the lemon table’.
Alongside classical music, the pieces are linked by themes of old age, declining powers (sexual and otherwise), and a general rage against the dying of the light. They are performed without an interval.
According to the internet, McDiarmid is 77, which rather gives the lie to the theme as he shows no evidence whatsoever of declining powers. Quite the reverse. He reminded me of Sir Ralph Richardson, whom I was lucky enough to see in his 80th year.
The pieces are directed with an invisible hand by Michael Grandage, who is nearly 60 and boasts a career as eminent as McDiarmid’s.
This is not an entertainment likely to attract the young, nor does it need it. But the house I was in had quite a lot of drama students as well as the usual suspects and, at the end, we gave McDiarmid a standing ovation.
Whether you’re interested in great acting, classical concert-going, Julian Barnes, or just want to see the Emperor from Star Wars in the flesh, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
By Chris Wallis, Theatre Editor
Main image: The Lemon Table, Ian McDiarmid c. Marc Brenner.
You can hear Ian McDermid as Prospero in BBC Radio 3’s new production of The Tempest, produced in Glasgow by Gaynor Macfarlane to coincide with COP26 and mixed in Manchester by Eloise Whitmore, now on BBC Sounds.
The Lemon Table is at Malvern Theatre until November 27, 2021.