Star Wars actor who played evil Emperor Palpatine visits Sheffield - and plans to explore the city

The actor who is best known as the evil Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars returns to the Sheffield Crucible stage with a one-man show.

Wednesday, 20th October 2021, 9:00 am

Of course, when he’s not playing one of the most ruthlessly manipulative characters on film, Ian McDiarmid is relaxed, charming and more than willing to talk about his most famous role.

Ian is back at the Crucible after 16 years in The Lemon Table, which is based on two short stories written by Julian Barnes from a collection of the same name.

The show is directed by Ian’s long-time collaborator Michael Grandage, a past artistic director at Sheffield Theatres.

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Ian came up with the idea himself. He said: “The second story was how I came to it. It is called Silence and it’s about the composer Sibelius. In common with much of Julian’s work, it’s a fictionalised version of the real character.

“I did that on the radio ages ago. It was recorded for the interval of a Proms concert. I liked it very much and I thought maybe it had dramatic potential. I looked at the book again and found this other story. Michael Grandage thought it was a good one.”

Ian was last at the Crucible in Edward Bond’s play Lear. He said he hadn’t had much chance to see the city on other visits. “I’ve usually been closeted in rehearsals with big parts. I don’t know it as well as I might like to. I might get a chance for a bit of exploration.”

“Julian Barnes’ words have their own kind of music”

Ian McDiarmid in Lear by Edward Bond at the Crucible Theatre in 2005, the last time he was on stage in Sheffield

Ian described his characters in Lemon Table: “In the first one he’s in a bit of a state – he gets very worked up about extraneous noises in concerts, people coughing and rustling programmes. He takes it to quite an extreme, although a lot of his problems are about his relationship, which seems to be going wrong.

“In the other story, Sibelius’ relationship with his wife is fairly tense, not least because he was an alcoholic. His problem with silence is because he hasn’t been able to write his Eighth Symphony. He's been trying for 30 years.”

Ian claimed the characters were easy to create: “I didn’t have to do much work, I just had to learn them. Julian Barnes’ words have their own kind of music with a wonderful sense of rhythm, silence and weight. It’s like getting a first-class script through the letterbox.”

Ian McDiarmid in The Lemon Table which is coming to the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

He’s been thrilled to get back on stage and says that audiences have missed that connection too.

It’s completely different to working on Star Wars, which has been part of Ian’s life for 41 years. He said he even he had no idea that Palpatine was going to reappear after he was apparently killed off.

“I realised my character is responsible for every evil act in the whole of the nine films”

“I have no clues to go on. In the Lucasfilm universe you can’t say that about any of the characters – they are liable to be reinstituted at any time. I had a great time doing him.”

Ian McDiarmid in one-man show The Lemon Table which is coming to the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

He added: “I realised my character is responsible for every evil act in the whole of the nine films – that gives me a weird sense of satisfaction!”

He loves the variety of acting in such different roles. “On the Star Wars shoot a couple of years ago I was surrounded by hundreds of people all working very hard in this gigantic studio.”

He’s a big fan of Daisy Riley, who plays Rey. “It was very, very bright of them to pick her – she’s such a wonderful, refreshing young actor, but also John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver. I had a very short scene with him in the beginning.”

I mentioned that I liked the diversity of the new stars. Ian said: “George (Lucas) has done that from the beginning. He has always had a very diverse cast. He’s seen that as important.”

He pointed out that Lucas made Red Tails, about the Tuskegee Airmen – black US pilots in World War Two. “I was with him when he was preparing the film.

He said, ‘I hope it will be the kind of film everybody who likes Star Wars will go and see. I don’t want it to be like an independent film with a small audience’. He was ahead of his time.”

The Lemon Table is at the Crucible from October 26 to 30. Tickets: www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk