Giving Life to Characters

Henrietta Bredin talks to Ian McDiramid about turning a novel into a play

The Spectator, 17 January 2009

Ian McDiarmid possesses a voice that, if he chose to let it, could curdle milk. Half-strangled and poisonously clotted it emerges in an evil flow in his portrayal of the Emperor of the Universe in the Star Wars films. As Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost, it is all silken seduction and hidden threat. In his next stage role, his voice will be heard, not just as an actor, but as the author of an adaptation of Be Near Me, the novel by Andrew O'Hagan. He will play Father David Anderton, a Catholic priest in a small Ayrshire parish, in a joint production between the National Theatre of Scotland and the Donmar Warehouse.

How had this happened? What had made him decide to attempt the subtle alchemy of turning a novel into a play? And, what's more, a novel of such sharply honed complexity, dark wit and compellingly poetic brilliance?

'Ah, so you liked it, did you?' McDiarmid grins appreciatively. 'When I read it I felt - not so much that it could be a play - but that in some strange way there was a play inside it. I've never really felt that about a book before.'

And had he made any previous adaptations? 'No. Although, at the Almeida we saw a huge number of different versions and translations and if you're remaking a play in any way there's a whole, deeply engrossing process of discussing the text with the writer concerned. We had long conversations with David Hare about his version of Ivanov, for example, and worked in great detail with Jeremy Sams on Annouilh's The Rehearsal. So it's a process I'm very familiar with.

'In this case, I can't deny that I was probably motivated by the thought that the central character was completely fascinating and would be fascinating to act. But I had no idea whether I would be capable of making a good adaptation so I asked my agent to check that the stage rights were available and then thought I'd say nothing to anyone because if I got halfway or even quarter of the way through it and couldn't go on, then I'd just stop and no-one need know.'

Clearly McDiarmid didn't stop so what happened next? 'I went to my house in Scotland, which is by the sea, but on the opposite coast to the setting of Be Near Me, and I started working at it. There were two things that struck me right away: one was that Andrew writes wonderful dialogue that is inherently dramatic, and the other was that, and this sounds almost glib, the novel contains a perfect first act curtain. Halfway through the book you come to a point where you think 'Goodness, I need a drink now. And what on earth's going to happen in the second half?' Beyond that, it's about love and all its complexities, it's about identity, national and personal, it's shot through with music and it's part of a long, distinguished history of having an nreliable narrator in David Anderton. One minute you find him intensely sympathetic, the next you think what an obnoxious, self-satisfied, snobbish person he is. And of course that hooked me because that's exactly the kind of ambivalent, ambiguous part I like to play.'

There were structural decisions to make. McDiarmid didn't want the character of Father Anderton to act as a narrator on stage. 'It's a device that can work very well in the theatre but in this case I thought that if the play was to work, the audience had to become slowly acquainted with this slightly mysterious and difficult person, making up their own minds about him rather than being presented with his intentions.'

O'Hagan makes frequent comparisons in his book between acting and the priesthood, other characters accuse Father Anderton of being an actor and for his housekeeper, Mrs Poole, that manifests itself in what she calls his Englishness; a particular manner, a way of not saying exactly he means. 'Well, Scots do of course have their own methods of concealment but absolutely; in a sense he's not living his life but performing it. And there must be many priests with a streak of the actor in them - the rituals of the Catholic church would tend to encourage that. Before I met Andrew I heard him in an interview, being asked what writing a novel was like. He paused for a minute and then said he thought it was like acting. I've written it down somewhere' - McDiarmid riffles through a much-scribbled-in notebook - 'Here it is. 'You give life to these characters and you inhabit them, sometimes at some cost to yourself, while also realizing yourself in the process.' Not bad.'

Having written a first draft, the question of getting the piece on stage must have become pressing. At what point did O'Hagan find out what McDiarmid had been up to? 'That was all fairly extraordinary. My first thought was that, in an ideal world, John Tiffany, whose production of Black Watch was just fantastic, would direct it for the National Theatre of Scotland and I would be in it. He created a kind of excitement with that show, depicting a Scottish community in a completely original, unpatronising, unsentimental way. And I thought well, that's the kind of approach this book, this play, needs. But I was a very long way from there. I arranged to have lunch with John - who I'd only met once, briefly - and we talked in general terms, until finally I said 'Do you know a writer called Andrew O'Hagan?' John said he did, and that they were discussing a possible collaboration. I asked if he knew Be Near Me and he said that he thought it was one of the finest books he'd ever read. I rather lost my appetite at that point but I reached into my bag and took out the script and said 'Well for better or for worse I've tried to adapt it as a play. Will you have a look at it and tell me what you think?' And I have to tell you, his eyes sparkled.'

After that, everything fell into place in a way which McDiarmid still seems to find unexpected, if extremely welcome. John Tiffany and Vicky Featherstone, director of the NTS, loved his script. O'Hagan was delighted with the adaptation. The Donmar leapt at the chance to co-produce. A terrific cast was assembled and, as I write, they're in the final throes of rehearsal for the first performances in Kilmarnock. If you've read the book, you'll know exactly why that is a startlingly appropriate choice of place to open the play.