Henrietta Bredin talks to Ian McDiarmid about turning a novel set in Scotland into a play
Ian McDiarmid possesses a voice that, if he chose to let it, could curdle milk. Half-strangled and poisonously clotted it emerges in an evil flow in his portrayal of the Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars films. As Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, it is all silken seduction and hidden threat. In his next stage role, his voice will be heard, not just as an actor, but as the author of an adaptation of Be Near Me, the novel by Andrew O’Hagan. He will play Father David Anderton, a Catholic priest in a small Ayrshire parish, in a joint production between the National Theatre of Scotland and the Donmar Warehouse.
How had this happened? What had made him decide to attempt the subtle alchemy of turning a novel into a play? And, what’s more, a novel of such sharply honed complexity, dark wit and compellingly poetic brilliance?
‘Ah, so you liked it, did you?’ McDiarmid grins appreciatively. ‘When I read it I felt — not so much that it could be a play — but that in some strange way there was a play inside it. I’ve never really felt that about a book before.’
And has he made any previous adaptations? ‘No. Although, at the Almeida [where he was artistic director with Jonathan Kent, from 1990–2002] we saw a huge number of different versions and translations and if you’re remaking a play in any way there’s a whole, deeply engrossing process of discussing the text with the writer concerned. We had long conversations with David Hare about his version of Ivanov, for example, and worked in great detail with Jeremy Sams on Anouilh’s The Rehearsal. So it’s a process I’m very familiar with.