McDiarmid's prolific stage career includes numerous credits for the National, RSC and theatres across the country, his screen appearances including Sleepy Hollow, Restoration, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and playing Senator Palpatine in the Star Wars saga. Joint artistic director of Islington’s Almeida Theatre from 1990 until 2002 with Jonathan Kent, the pair are reunited for Emperor and Galilean with Kent directing.
McDiarmid stars alongside Andrew Scott in Henrik Ibsen’s 1873 play, considered the writer's magnum opus. Charting the odyssey of Julian the Apostate as he struggles to find spiritual fulfilment and political pre-eminence, Ibsen’s epic sweeps across Greece and the Middle-East from AD 351 covering 12 crucial years in the history of civilisation.
The production, which plays in rep in the NT Olivier, opened on 15 June (previews from 9 June) where it continues until 10 August 2011. Here the Olivier and Tony-Award winning actor talks to Whatsonstage.com about his latest role.
Emperor and Galilean is a bit like doing a new play, except it happens to be by Henrik Ibsen. What Ben Powers has quite brilliantly done is to sort of make a real play out of something that was intended to be read, which is how Ibsen saw this particular work. What Ben has achieved is rather like being faced with a big amorphous rock and sculpting something that’s dramatically engaging out of it.
He’s done that by concentrating on the characters and making them live, and that job of course falls to the actors as well. But Ben has been workshopping the show with Jonathan Kent for two years now, and he’s been through many versions. You want to humanise it, you want to keep the kernel, but at the same time you don’t want to just reduce it into manageable bites because then it wouldn’t be the same epic work that Ibsen wrote. You have to attend to all of these things, and it’s the collaboration of rehearsal then produces something that we hope is energetic.
Though it is one of Ibsen’s lesser-known pieces, it is as challenging and exciting as any of his other plays. Ibsen’s great ability, even when he is not being so explicit about it, is to find great psychological depth in all of the characters. That ability really comes through in this piece. It’s the story of Julian, a young man who is very conflicted and very confused about his faith. He is a nephew of the Emperor, and so he was lucky that he wasn’t murdered when he was a child. And so he lives this kind of neurotic existence, knowing that he might be in line for the throne but not wanting it, and that the Emperor might kill him at any moment. On top of that, Julian has these doubts about his faith.
He’s a Christian and all of his friends are Christian, but there’s something about the faith that doesn’t seem true to him. He doesn’t like the notion that you have to live virtuously now to live in paradise later; he feels that joy should be a thing of the world and not a thing of eternity. He leaves Christianity and adopts paganism, encouraged by my character, the prophet Maximus. And suddenly, he finds that he is indeed Emperor of Rome, and has an opportunity to put all of his ideas into practice. He tries to lead a society in which Christianity and paganism can exist side-by-side, but he finds that impossible. In the end the Christians gain the upper hand. The notion that Maximus, my character, has of him in the play is that he is the second Messiah, that he is the one who will unite the human and the divine. Maximus believes that Julian does this in his person, and that he’s capable of transmitting that to others. To the pagan Maximus, he’s a greater emissary of how to live your life than Christ.
I’ve been in several Ibsen productions in my life, the last one in London being John Gabriel Borkman, Michael Grandage’s production. I did Peer Gynt quite some time ago with Adrian Mitchell, who died quite recently, and he really did a terrific semi-musical version of that play. Julian’s journey is in some ways not dissimilar from Peer Gynt’s: they are both people who feel forced into the world, each a man who wants to make his life the special thing he believes it can be. Julian achieves this now and again, but ultimately he doesn’t because he reaches too far. In Emperor, hubris is a big issue. Peer Gynt I think is more about coming to terms with a sense of self and what the world will allow you to be. It’s interesting that Peer Gynt very much lends itself to a radical interpretation the way that this play does.
The character of Ibsen’s landscapes and the character of his people resonates with me. What led him to write what he wrote was a kind of knowing doubt that he had ever since he was a child. He could never square the notion of sexual freedom with the society and the religion that seemed to bind him. Once Julian embarks on his journey he marries a beautiful woman, but that goes disastrously wrong. He decides that sex is no longer going to be a part of his life. He’ll just pursue power. But he does have an end in mind, and his end is a generous end, it’s not self-seeking.
The atmosphere at the NT Olivier is great. Everybody’s there to make sure they do the best they can, and that’s what governs the building. It’s very relaxed, people have a good time doing what they’re doing, and I think that’s very important. It’s also very exciting because there is a whole host of rich plays being done at the same time. The fantastic production of The Cherry Orchard was going on as we rehearsed. It’s what theatre should be like. It’s great also to be able to offer this particular play for the first time in English in this venue. Jonathan Kent uses every inch of that vast Olivier stage and all of the machinery. I’ve worked with Jonathan for years, and he really creates a pleasant environment to work in. I’m also very happy to be working with Andrew Scott, one of our finest actors. It’s an enormous part for him but you’ll see he is quite up to the challenge.
Concerning Emperor I’ve been told, “For God’s sake, tell them it’s not ten hours!” You hear that from someone and think, “Have I really got ten hours of my life?” It’s not ten hours. It’s the length of Hamlet. And now that we see it in full, day by day, it’s an exciting narrative. If it was a movie you’d talk about fast-cutting, and it really does move from private to public scenes very fast. We’re obviously cautious with a subtitle as big as “This is the first time it’s being seen as a production in English”, but I think we can confidently say that this is the first professional production in English. It’s very rarely performed in Norway. We think faster these days, our minds move quickly, and always in a play you want to be ahead of the audience. That’s a strength and an achievement of this adaptation.
Emperor and Galilean opened in the NT Olivier on 15 June (previews from 9 June) and continues in rep until 10 August 2011.