Be Near Me
Actor/writer Ian McDiarmid and director John Tiffany talk to Yasmin Sulaiman about their adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me
The story of a priest who stirs up a riot of anti-Catholic feeling in a Protestant Ayrshire town after a drunken fumble with a teenage boy might not instantly sound like it would travel well outside the west of Scotland or Ireland. But, since its opening week in Kilmarnock in January, the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Be Near Me – an adaptation of homegrown writer Andrew O’Hagan’s Booker longlisted novel – has been playing to packed audiences at the Donmar Warehouse in London. The first collaboration between John Tiffany, acclaimed director of Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, and veteran Scottish actor Ian McDiarmid – known to Star Wars fans across the world as Emperor Palpatine – returns to Scotland at the end of March.
Despite the longstanding relationship between O’Hagan and Tiffany, it was McDiarmid who first took up the reins of the project. He wrote an adaptation in secret before tentatively revealing it to Tiffany just days after the director named it his book of the year in The Herald. McDiarmid says: ‘I think O’Hagan is one of Britain’s, not just Scotland’s, finest writers and so I was eagerly awaiting his latest novel in 2006. Then, when I read it, I sort of felt it could be a play almost immediately and I really wanted to play the central character because he’s so complicated and interesting.’ And for Tiffany, working with McDiarmid was something of a realisation of a dream: ‘The idea of directing Ian McDiarmid, who’s been a hero of mine for years – as both a brilliant actor and also as a theatre maker – appealed instantly.’
Based in the fictional Ayrshire town of Dalgarnock, the play’s lucid representation of the region’s historic sectarian divide, coupled with its widespread unemployment, certainly rings true in today’s Britain. ‘I come from West Yorkshire, which has been ravaged by the death of heavy industry, in the same way that the fictional Dalgarnock has,’ Tiffany says. ‘So the idea of a tension between this community that’s suffered the tragedy of unemployment and this sense of community disappearing, I think that’s very common anywhere.’ McDiarmid adds: ‘The reason that [the town] all get together and gang up on the poor priest – although some people think he deserves all he gets – is because in a sense they’re looking for some kind of unity. They’re looking for something that will pull them together and this, for a short period in time, does.’
It’s this sense of universality that really marks Be Near Me’s appeal, a quality that’s likely to seal the success of this current tour and which, for McDiarmid, has made it all worthwhile. ‘What’s been good – and Andrew O’Hagan, very generously, has been the first to say it – is that this is not just a book that’s suddenly been adapted for the stage, it’s a play in its own right,’ he says. ‘But the most gratifying thing is that so far everyone says they’ve been really moved by it and I think that’s the thing that I most wanted to happen.’
Be Near Me, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, Wed 25 Mar–Sat 4 Apr, then touring throughout Scotland.