WhatsOnStage Logo

Ian McDiarmid: 'An audience member shouted at me to get off the stage'

The actor discusses his contentious role as Enoch Powell in the current production of What Shadows, as well as his future in the Star Wars franchise

WhatsOnStage logo
Ian McDiarmid
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

Olivier Award-winner Ian McDiarmid has had a sustained presence on both screen and stage for almost 50 years, famous for his role as the evil Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars franchise and as former artistic director of the Almeida Theatre in north London. He currently stars in What Shadows at the Park Theatre, tackling the role of iconic politician Enoch Powell

Chris Hannan's play, directed by Birmingham Rep artistic director Roxana Silbert, is a response to the life and legacy of Powell as well as a reflection on the fractures within our own modern society. It has previously run at both the Birmingham Rep and the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. It runs at the Park until 28 October.

In Edinburgh one person shouted at me to get off the stage. We really want people from all communities to come along and express their views, which they regularly do (though preferably after the show!). That was actually something I really expected we'd get a lot of in Birmingham, you know, where we were performing right next to where Powell made his famous 'Rivers of Blood' speech. I think people just can't believe what was coming out of Enoch Powell's mouth.

Powell was a romantic. Chris Hannan has done him complete justice in the script, as he has so many contradictions. A brilliant intellectual, he was a professor of Greek at Sydney University when he was 25. But he also had a strong poetic streak and spoke like an Old Testament prophet. His early personal life was very complicated, he was difficult, he was lonely, he was solitary but he was later very affectionate towards his children and subsequently to his grandchildren, as well as his wife.

He'd've been delighted by the Brexit vote. Chris never realised how relevant the play would be. It's about a divided nation, where you either seem to be on one side or the other, and there seems to be no common ground for discussion or debate. At least Powell's arguments against the common market were of a much higher standard than the arguments now, debates we are not privileged enough to have experienced.

My first key moment in becoming an actor was at school in Dundee. They decided to do an animated version of Waltzing Matilda, and they were casting the parts of the sheep, and the tramp. I didn't really fancy the sheep but found the tramp had more to do, so they asked people to put their hands up if they wanted to try it. My hand shot up straight away and I looked at the others thinking, 'I could do it better'. Whether that was true or not, that kind of confidence got me the part and that was the beginning.

I'd love to go back into the Star Wars franchise. If the part ever rose its ugly head again that is, as everyone well knows Palpatine is dead – as of episodes one through to nine. But now that there are anthology films (and I got a lot of mentions in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) so maybe they're holding me in reserve for those. Palpatine is like the history of modern politics. You think he's the nice guy who can help you, but then he turns into an unhinged monster.

I've seen some of the internet memes about Palpatine. But I try to stay away from meme culture or the cult sensation that exists there. It's like my whole attitude towards social media - it's best if I don't go there, though occasionally people show me things that are actually quite funny. I've heard about how people love my line 'Do It' - which was a funny one to film on set. We did several takes with Christopher Lee and eventually, I said the line out of sheer exasperation and now it's lived on.

What Shadows runs at the Park Theatre until 28 October.