Wiltshire Creative, Malvern Theatres, Sheffield Theatre and HOME in association with the Michael Grandage Company present the world premiere of The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes
A play in two parts, The Lemon Table celebrates a love of music, live performance, and life itself. In the first half we are introduced to an obsessive concert goer who goes to unorthodox lengths to enjoy his evening. In the other, the concert’s composer reflects on the music he has created – his successes, his failures, and the life he has lived.
A darkly funny and beautifully written evening that celebrates our return to live performance and the artists who make it.
‘When Ian McDiarmid suggested The Lemon Table to continue our thirty year working relationship, there was no doubt in my mind that it offered us both an opportunity, post-pandemic, to return to the theatre in an incredibly focussed way with a distilled piece of work for one person. These two short plays add up to a kind of tone poem where the experience is greater and deeper than the relatively short 60 minute running time. Indeed, it offered audiences a level of existential debate that so many of us had gone through over nearly two years without access to live performance.’ Michael Grandage, Artistic Director, MGC
Two men separated in time by several decades but united by their advancing years: the composer and the connoisseur.
One, now in his seventies, has been enjoying classical concerts for years, his only frustration the coughers and talkers in the audience who threaten to spoil his evening’s entertainment.
The other, in his nineties, has withdrawn into silence while his critics and admirers await the final coda to his illustrious career - the much-anticipated 8th symphony.
Both strive to maintain their inner and outer peace while attempting to reconcile the mistakes of the past with an uncertain future…
Writer - Julian Barnes
Directors - Michael Grandage & Titas Halder
Set & Costume Designer - Frankie Bradshaw
Lighting Designer - Paule Constable
Sound Designer - Ella Wahlström
Ryan Day - Associate Lighting Designer
Production Manager - John Titcombe
Company and Stage Manager - Kate Schofield
Deputy Stage Manager - Lucy Bradford
Costume Supervisor - Henrietta Worrall-Thompson
Set Construction - Tim Reed & Daniel Gent
Scenic Art - Richard Nutbourne, Scenic Studio
Technical Manager - Barny Meats
Deputy Technical Manager - Dave March
Senior Technicians - Matt Bird & Michael Scott
Technicians - Jonathan Cox & Matt Gill
Rehearsal & Production Photographer - Marc Brenner
Trailer - The Other Richard
Poster Photography - Johan Persson
Poster Design - AKA
Julian Barnes is the author of twenty-four books including, most recently, The Man in the Red Coat.
He received the Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending and has also received the Somerset Maugham Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the David Cohen Prize for Literature, and the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; the French Prix Médicis and Prux Femina; the Austrian State Prize for European Literature; the Jerusalem Prize; and in 2017 he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur by the French government.
His work has been translated into more than forty languages.
He lives in London.
(In order of speaking)
1st man (Ian McDiarmid)
A concert goer
‘A man in his early seventies. Dark suit, loosened, undecorated tie, spectacles.’
A fastidious man, precise in his thoughts and speech, he is often irritable and easily roused to anger.
2nd man (Ian McDiarmid)
‘A man in his early nineties, in a black coat.’
A solitary figure, seemingly happiest in his own company.
Education Associate Dominic Francis provides an insight into the cast and Creative Team’s rehearsal process for The Lemon Table
It’s day two of the second, and last, week of rehearsals for The Lemon Table. Including the production week, when lights and sound are added in the first venue on the tour (Salisbury Playhouse), the play has just over two and a half weeks of rehearsals, from readthrough to opening night. It being a solo show, which actor Ian McDiarmid has adapted himself from Julian Barnes’ short stories of the same name, it’s felt that this is sufficient time. The rehearsal venue is a familiar one - the Jerwood Space in Southwark where many of Michael Grandage’s past productions have been created.
Leading today’s rehearsal is co-director, Titas Halder, who’s previously worked with Michael at the Donmar Warehouse. It’s a small team in the room: two members of Stage Management alongside Sound Designer Ella Wahlström, plus Titas and Ian. The day has started with a photo shoot as part of the production’s publicity and now the team are waiting for Ella to set up the sound.
A long table and two matching chairs dominate the space. This, essentially, is the set. Drawings and photographs of the model box by designer Frankie Bradshaw reveal, additionally, a frame and curtain at the rear, all of which is accommodated on a raised platform of bare wooden boards. It’s an austere yet striking environment.
‘This is quite a gentle session for us,’ explains Titas. ‘This morning’s plan is to go over the new sounds.’ Having incorporated these into the performance they’ll then do a run of the show. While waiting for Ella, Titas suggests they do a ‘chair call’, meaning the various positions of the two chairs throughout the piece. Ian walks slowly through the choreography, taking note of marks on the floor put down by Stage Management to help him remember. During these quiet moments he runs lines under his breath, consolidating these with the blocking.
Ella’s nearly finished setting up and Sibelius’ music can be heard playing in the background. Even at a low volume it manages to be incredibly powerful and stirring. Ian is hopeful that the show will encourage audiences to listen to more of his work. Various sound effects are heard, notably the call of cranes flying overhead at the end of the piece. It’s very loud and Titas assures Ian that it will be quieter in performance. They now work on this section in detail, incorporating both sound effects and music. ‘You focus on what you need to do,’ Titas says to Ian, ‘and we’ll put the levels in around you.’ They work carefully together through the piece, Ian checking in frequently with Titas and Ella: ‘Cranes going throughout that, yes? … I don’t think we want the wind on this bit.’
They’re trying to establish the right tone for the end of the play. ‘In my head, I’m wondering if there should be something about what music means to him, a glow,’ suggests Titas. ‘It’s like a little focus pull, just to make us pay attention.’ Ian agrees: ‘Something very gentle, something from the 5th.’ They both understand the need for sensitivity with regard to sound. ‘We don’t want to overdo it,’ observes Ian, ‘it’s a subtle thing. We should never be underscoring.’ Titas thinks the music is there to ‘expand or intensify a feeling, to reach out and squeeze the audience’s heart’. He puts himself in the position of the spectator: ‘I want to understand what’s in the character’s head – we need to help the audience.’
They go over the ending again, trying to get the timings right. ‘Maybe the sound could come in after I say, “Sounds that pierce the heart…”?’ suggests Ian. ‘Can I have a second there?’ he asks Titas and Ella, referring to the character’s final moments, before the sound of the cranes is introduced. ‘Can I become a corpse first? When should it fade exactly?’ Ian congratulates Ella on the overall design and Titas comments on how delicately she’s blended the ambient noises with Sibelius’ music: ‘There was a moment there where I wasn’t sure if I was hearing wind or strings.’
The main focus of the session is on timings and levels. Occasionally Ian thinks the music is working against the lines: ‘At the moment it’s contradicting the sense of what I’m saying.’ Everyone works together to resolve this. ‘Shall I go back?’ asks Ian. ‘What’s helpful?’ For now Titas suggests to Ella where the sound should come in and out. ‘I’ll stop stopping,’ says Ian, ‘and carry on regardless.’ He’s mindful that it’ll sound different in the various venues anyway. Titas reassures him that it’s important he feel comfortable with the sound: ‘We need to have a language for communicating that in the room – what does and doesn’t work.’
He reflects on the contrast between the full soundscape and silence: ‘When we take the music away, there’s lots of space.’ At the climax of the scene and Sibelius’ 5th symphony, which accompanies it, Ian’s character waves his arms majestically as though conducting. ‘Even louder,’ he calls to Ella, ‘as if the orchestra is in the room. Don’t worry about it competing with me, I’ll compete with it!’ The last detail to be timed to perfection is the final moment of the play, when Ian reveals a lemon clasped in his outstretched hand, his fingers opening on the final chord of the symphony.
After a short break they run the whole of the second half, called ‘The Silence’. It goes well, Ian commenting afterwards, ‘I felt all of the pieces in that one’. For the first time all of the elements seemed to be in place - further discoveries and the consolidation of details will take place in the remaining rehearsals. Reflecting on the runthrough, Ian observes: ‘I kept thinking I was going to dry, but I was able to use it – I usually do.’ His only concern is one of stamina. ‘I hope I’ve got the energy to do it (‘The Silence’) after the first one.’
There’s another brief break and then they run the first half, called ‘Vigilance’. Despite giving a powerful performance, Ian doesn’t feel it went as well as ‘The Silence’ and is apologetic. ‘I’m tired,’ he says simply. Titas isn’t concerned and reassures him with regard to solo shows, ‘It’s like running a marathon – you have to build up to it. And there’s a point in the rehearsal process when it hits you. Your stamina will increase.’
Taking out a notepad and pen to make his own notes, Ian asks the Deputy Stage Manager to highlight the parts of the script which he forgets in future run throughs. Titas also asks her to help him make a ‘working list’ of notes for tomorrow’s rehearsal, starting with looking again at the sound in specific places, which he refers to as, ‘Joining everything up’. Titas’ notes to Ian range from highlighting an incorrect word – ‘severity of style’ not ‘austerity’ – to thoughts about the sound and its relation to other (unseen) characters: ‘I think Aino (Sibelius’ wife) needs a motif. Each moment should be different, but it’s punctuated in the effect she has on him.’
Referring to ‘The Silence’ and the character’s alcoholism, Titas asks, ‘Ian, after you’ve taken the bottle, do you want to recover completely before you go out?’ He thinks the character would tidy himself up before dinner with friends. ‘He might be a drunk passed out on the floor, but he’s high-functioning in public.’ Ian agrees: ‘Absolutely, that’s very good.’ Some of Titas’ notes are directed at Ella: ‘What do we do after the bottle is thrown? There’s a definite change of air – something building, a moment of crescendo.’
Having talked through the notes for ‘The Silence’, they then focus on ‘Vigilance’. Titas thinks the orchestra at the beginning shouldn’t sound real – it should be in the character’s head. While he continues to discuss notes with Ella, Ian quietly runs through lines and blocking in the space.
Co-Director Titas Halder talks to Education Associate Dominic Francis about the rehearsal process
You’re now halfway through the second week of a two-week rehearsal period. Can you give me a brief overview of what’s happened so far, going back to the first day?
As you say, we have two weeks - three if you include our production week. Coming into the room Ian had, to some extent, learnt the text. Michael and I were wondering, ‘Will we come in on day one and see a person who’s got the whole thing down, and is he simply going to give a performance? Or are we going to have to start from scratch and work something out?’ It was pretty remarkable. We came in and Ian really did speak the text, the whole thing. It was so interesting because you could absolutely see the architecture of it, the skeleton, and all the reasons why he should be telling us that story as a performer and everything he brings with it, his qualities as an actor – his voice, all of those things. But at the same time, for me as a director - and I think for Michael as well - we were looking at it and thinking: ‘We need to find the turns of the story, the reason why these things unfold. We need to understand why this story is being told.’ And then there’s the practical element of how this story should exist in space, in the space we’re in, which in a sense is to talk about staging. Ian had literally practiced it around his kitchen table and then suddenly you walk into the rehearsal room and there’s this very big, long table and two chairs.
So those elements of the set design were there from day one?
Yes. So the advantage is, it’s a bit like being air-lifted into a show - we hit day one with all the furniture and costume in the room, because a lot of planning had gone into it by that stage.
And there are stage directions in the script, so Ian had clearly given thought to how the piece might be staged. How much did you attend to that?
He had and some of it stands and some of it doesn’t, and that’s just because you’ve got to discover what’s the best way to put a story on its feet in the space you’re in. For me, as a director, you of course look at what a writer’s put on the page and respect it because it’s there for a reason. So when it says, ‘He picks up the chair at this point’, maybe that is where he picks up the chair but, at the same time - and I think particularly with a one-man show where everything needs to earn its place on stage, earn its moment - you really have to question: ‘Do you need to stand up there? Do you need to sit down?’ So there was a bit of push and pull about it: ‘Let’s use what’s on the page as a template certainly, but now that we have all of that in front of us in 3D, we’re trying to take a thing that’s 2D and make it 3D.’
I take it Ian was open to that process? He’d created and performed a version of the piece before, for BBC Radio, so naturally would feel a sense of ownership over it.
Yes, he does own it and ultimately it is his performance. What Michael and I are there to do, in any context, is to make that performance sing in the most beautiful way it can. In that sense, I think I would always be questioning: ‘Do you need to put the programme down on the table there? Do you need to pick it up then?’ And it’s the simple things sometimes, like sitting there in the audience as the director and saying, ‘I need more access to the character at this point, so could you be at the front of the stage?’ And if that feels right to Ian, he’ll do it.
Was there a lot of discussion about Sibelius and his music in week one?
There hasn’t been time for tons of discussion, but what we have had is its impact. The music came in quite quickly. Michael had already spoken to Ella and Ian about it, about which versions of the piece to use. Ian and Michael had, I know, talked about various versions.
Were they particularly knowledgeable about these different versions?
Yes, because they have a shared experience of Sibelius’ music. They’ve seen some of these versions live and there are some performances on CD which they are emotionally close to. So they both came in with very clear ideas of which versions they might want to try. I have to admit I knew very little about Sibelius before. It’s a joy to sit there and be struck by this incredible power, the majesty of the music.
Did you listen to the 4th and 5th symphonies outside rehearsals?
Yes, but you want to have more time. If it was, in inverted commas, a ‘normal’ rehearsal period, or a more protracted period of time, I’d be walking around with the music in my head for three, four months or even longer than that. Of course, for Michael and Ian they have been for years. It’s very much their world, where music lies for them. It has emotional resonance for them.
What are the challenges of doing a solo show, from rehearsals to performance?
For me, the director, or for them, the performer?
Let’s start with the performer. What do you think are the main challenges of a solo show for them?
I think it’s so hard to do a piece by yourself. Many actors feel they don’t want to be out there alone. When you’re in a cast you’ve got each other, you have your company on stage - you have people with you, you’re making a story together, you’re out there fighting the fight together. Equally, when you’re in a cast of ten, twenty people maybe the play’s three hours long but you’re only on stage for ten minutes. This is seventy, eighty minutes and it’s all Ian - it’s all on him. That age-old question that audiences always ask, ‘How do you learn your lines?’ actually becomes really pertinent now: ‘How do you learn all that?!’ And the energy needed: How do you sustain a performance? We were talking about that today in the room, likening it to marathon training because, as I said, on day one Ian had the text learnt, but there’s a big difference between having it learnt and having accessibility to it - having the text liquid enough to change and play with it, to try new things as you’re bringing it to its fullest life. I can see it everyday - there’s a sort of percentage bar you hit where each day it gets higher and higher, and Ian gets closer and closer to being able to do the full show at one hundred percent. But it’s really, really hard. I think for a one-man show a Creative Team also has to step up and give the performer their all while you’re making it. They have to know that you are totally there for them at every level.
As a director in the rehearsal room with only one performer, what are the challenges? It’s rather a relentless focus on just one other person.
I think that’s the strange thing. I directed a solo show before with a wonderful actor and in the first few days of rehearsals, during our lunch breaks, he would ask me about my family. I was a bit younger then and I didn’t really want to talk about it so I would evade these questions and not really answer him. But he persevered and I realised after a few days that because, in the context of a one-man show, he was there on stage giving everything, he also needed me to give everything of myself to him. There needed to be this kind of agreement - this sense that you are all there, one hundred percent, giving everything you can. And, as you say, you have to be super focused and alive to every moment. You would be in any show but there is something more heightened about that feeling with a solo show. It’s a delight because you become really attuned to it. Suddenly moments work and you can see them all blossom like flowers on the vine. There’s a sort of tapestry of lights and they all start lighting up one by one, until slowly the whole thing is alight. You both have to have that faith that it’s going to get to that point. At the end of the day, when you both run out of steam, that’s all you can do for that day. Doing a solo show is a great advert for when you think you’ve run out of energy, you should end the rehearsal day.
And a twelve till four rehearsal day is the optimum length that one person can be that centre of attention?
I think so, yeah. If you’re trying to do ten till six with a big lunch break, I personally don’t see how it’s possible because you’d be getting tired even over lunch. You can even hear my voice is tired and I don’t talk that much during the day. Ian obviously has to rehearse the whole piece and then do notes, so he has to take care of his voice, he has to take care of his energy levels.
Plus there’s presumably all the other activities – publicity, etc.?
Yes, Ian’s got to do a lot of press. So all of that stuff is coming into the room.
You’re now halfway through week two of rehearsals, starting production week next week. What happens from here? Can you outline it out for us.
So we get into the theatre in Salisbury next week. I believe the fit-up is on Monday, so the first time we see Ian on stage is Tuesday. We’ve got sound in the room now but next week, for the first time, we’ll start to see what lighting can do. Paule Constable, the Lighting Designer, is another long-term collaborator of Michael’s, so again there’s this sense of a few long-term collaborations at work here. And we’ll also really see the set for the first time. We have our furniture now but we’ll see the set and understand it properly. Ian and I talked about the fact that there’s a frame around the whole stage, an upright frame, which literally makes it seem like a picture and we haven’t really thought about it. We haven’t been able to say, ‘Is that something you can touch? Is that something you can use for staging?’ And there’s this wonderful curtain on a swag and, again, we don’t know quite know how we can use it yet. So, in a way, you need to go into the production week knowing that there’s still a whole load of treasure to discover, a treasure trove of things that you can find and say, ‘Oh, we’ve done this in the rehearsal room but now we’re here, let’s use this - let’s use the curtains, let’s use the frame’. It will feel different under the lights, it will feel different with the sound in its whole rig. I think we’re on pretty quickly. We have our technical sessions, dress rehearsal - if we’re lucky, enough time for a second dress - a preview and then the show opens. On the one hand it looks quite quick, but on the other there’s a good amount of time to make it all happen. And it’s not because it takes a short amount of time to do these things, it’s because everybody’s already moving at pace. The team’s been really great, all aspects of it - the production side of things, etc. - everyone’s been working very hard. Before we got anywhere near the rehearsal room, all the conversations on Zoom were focused on strategic planning: ‘How do we make all this land at the right time?’ There was a moment during rehearsals where we finished for the day, the table was whisked away to get painted and then returned just in time for the next session. Everything’s run like a really well-oiled machine.