The Lemon Table review – love and death with Julian Barnes

·2 min read

“Among the Chinese, the lemon is the symbol of death,” says the narrator in The Silence, the short story that closes Julian Barnes’s 2004 collection The Lemon Table. The narrator is the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, nearing the end of his life. When he wants to reflect upon mortality, he says, he joins others at “the lemon table”, in a regular haunt where “it is permissible – indeed obligatory – to talk about death”. Morbid? Not on the page and definitely not on the stage, in Ian McDiarmid’s full-blooded performance.

The Silence is the second of two stories adapted from Barnes’s book by McDiarmid and performed back-to-back by him alone, over 70 minutes. Vigilance is the other, its fiction intersecting neatly with our reality as its narrator describes his reactions to audience members who rustle sweet papers, flick through the pages of their programmes and, worst of all, cough during concerts. McDiarmid’s character instantly engages – the actual audience laughs its sympathy with his annoyance (no one coughs). A deeper disruption, though, underlies his increasingly violent exasperation, hidden in the silence between him and the man he has lived with for 20 years, formerly his lover: “We do not talk about that.”

The same setting serves both stories: a long table, two chairs, a slatted wooden floor. Behind these rises an enormous picture frame, slightly broken at its base. Whatever is beyond the frame is hidden by grey drapes, hanging in folds. Frankie Bradshaw’s design, Paule Constable’s lighting and Ella Wahlström’s sound design create a space that is solid and yet allusive, eliding between interiors and exteriors; the table becomes a mountain, the curtains a cloudscape.

Under the joint direction of Michael Grandage and Titas Halder, the synthesis of sound, light, set and gesture suggests something physical but not altogether concrete, evoking the precision, ironic detachment and emotional elusiveness of Barnes’s writing. Where, on the page, Barnes’s tone invites readers to understand something beyond the surface meanings of the words, on the stage McDiarmid’s movements speak more than the characters say. He raises his arms then slowly lowers them – the action conjures images, simultaneous, superimposing: the act of conducting, the flight of a crane, the soaring of a soul; the sharp sweetness of life.

The Lemon Table is presented by Wiltshire Creative, Malvern Theatres, Sheffield Theatres and Home, in association with MGC

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