Heart of Palpatine, or Actor’s True Character

Ian McDiarmid

Photo by Pete Vilmur — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Life itself is performance, hence the theatrical is implicit in our every action.

Luigi Pirandello was obsessed with the interplay between the make-believe and the real. (He titled a collection of his plays Naked Masks). For Pirandello, the key to understanding a person, and a character, is to perceive how they approach the process of costruirsi, or to build one’s self up, to create a mask, to impose a reality that is fictional.

How impressed he would be then with Ian McDiarmid, currently appearing in one of Pirandello’s masterpieces, Six Characters in Search of An Author.

As posted on KadmusArts Culture News this week, McDiarmid might have suffered a heart attack on onstage — and kept on performing. During the opening night performance McDiarmid suffered from dizzy spells while onstage. The offstage crew decided to call an ambulance about ten minutes before the end of the show at the Gielgud Theatre.

Paramedics arrived in time to catch the end, and watch McDiarmid gingerly make it through the curtain call. He then exited the stage and entered the ambulance.

In addition to his popular portrayal of political-evil-incarnate, Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars, McDiarmid is a distinguished stage actor and director. McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent led the Almeida from 1990 to 2001, during which time the Almeida became one of the most exciting theatres in Europe. (McDiarmid has also had the rare opportunity to play an elderly character, as he did for Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi (1983), and then twenty years later play the same character as a younger man.)

After a week’s absence for recovery, the sixty-four year old McDiarmid has returned to his role as the Father in Six Characters in Search of An Author, (which Shaw said was the “most original play every written”).

As for the reviews of his opening night ambulance-in-waiting performance? Pretty good. The almost-seen-it-all Times critic Benedict Nightingale noted, “He looked ghastly, but then he was meant to.”

“A man lives…and does not see himself. Well, put a mirror before him and make him see himself in the act of living. Either he is astonished at his own appearance, or else he turns away his eyes so as not to see himself , or else in disgust he spits at his image, or again, clenches his fist to break it. In a world, there arises a crisis, and that crisis is my theatre.”

Wonder what McDiarmid saw in that moment of his internal flutter, his crisis?

McDiarmid’s next scheduled role is to play Sir Denis Thatcher in a television production of Margaret. Here’s hoping the excitement and dash of Denis doesn’t overwhelm McDiarmid’s body or talent.

- Bill Reichblum

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