The police tape wrapped around the billboards on Lothian Road and Grindlay Street beside Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre suggest that a serious incident in need of investigation has occurred. In fact, as the posters inside the cordoned-off billboards make clear, the incident in question has yet to happen. Dark Road, the first ever stage play by best-selling crime novelist and creator of Inspector Rebus, Ian Rankin, is still being rehearsed inside the Lyceum, where actress Maureen Beattie is squaring up to her nemesis.
Beattie plays a top Edinburgh cop who was instrumental in the conviction of an alleged serial killer twenty five years ago. Now, on the verge of retiring, she must face up to the doubts that have been lurking at the back of her mind for a quarter of a century. She must also face up to the man whose life she effectively took away.
This is typically gritty stuff from Rankin, who has co-written the play with Lyceum artistic director Mark Thomson, who also directs what looks set to be a commercially savvy co-production with the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. On a rare day off in Edinburgh inbetween book-reading tours in Cape Town and France, Rankin reflects on the experience in a coffee shop where the music being played through the speakers is somewhat appropriately by The Police. The song is Walking on the Moon, which pop trivia expert Rankin picks up on immediately.
“Wasn't it originally called Walking Round the Room or something?” he ponders about a song originally written by Sting in a hotel room while drunk. Again, given that Rankin has just been marvelling at what is and isn't physically possible on stage compared to page, this observation is all too fitting.
“There are tape recordings,” Rankin says. “There are projections, there are bits where people appear in a room but are part of a dream sequence. It's quite awkward to get your head round. If I'd known how hard all that stuff was, it looks easy when you write it down. Just getting someone in and out of a room, stuff I'd never thought about. You think, okay, people are on the stage, and the next scene you need the same people, how are they supposed to change? Luckily I'm working with a director who'll tell me, no, Ian, you can't physically do that on a stage, so you need to find a way to do it.”
As a regular at Lyceum shows, Rankin came into contact with Thomson some years ago, and first talked about trying to put Inspector Rebus onstage. While the logistics of putting some thirty to forty characters that grace a Rebus novel onstage proved prohibitive, it nevertheless inspired an even more interesting idea.
“Mark said, how come you see so many cops onscreen, but we never really see contemporary police drama on the stage? You've got your classic Agatha Christies, and plays that verge towards the supernatural, like The Woman in Black, but cops? Maybe it can't be done.”
Rankin came up with some story-lines, and eventually found one that appealed to both Thomson and himself. Rankin came up with the characters and twists, story-boarded it, then handed it over to Thomson, who structured it before the pair went through it with a fine tooth-comb, being careful not to cut too many corners in terms of police procedures. Then something happened that changed everything.
“They changed the entire structure of the police in Scotland,” Rankin says of the recent amalgamation of all regional police forces into one body now known as Police Scotland. “The main character in the play was originally the first female chief constable in Scotland. That still pertains, but when they changed it so there's now only one chief constable in the whole of Scotland, that can't be her. She can't be at the very top. So now she's superintendent, but she was a chief constable. A lot of people will be going, well, they got it right, but others will wonder why we're bothering. My latest book, which comes out in November, I thought about restructuring it after the police restructuring happened on April 1st, but I made the decision to set it in March to get past all that. We could have done that with this, but Mark wanted it to be as contemporary as possible.”
The story of Dark Road itself was inspired by a real case in which a killer not only confessed to the crime under investigation, but led the investigating officer to a second body. As the officer hadn't gone back to the station and questioned the suspect, however, rules were considered to have been broken, and the officer was disciplined.
“It wasn't like he was beating up a suspect or anything,” Rankin points out, “but because he hadn't followed every letter of the law, it went against him, even though the second victim's family think he did the right thing, because it brought them some kind of closure. So there's this notion that procedure can have a big effect on something, sand that something tiny, that wasn't done properly twenty-five years ago can come back and haunt you.”
Rankin describes Dark Road as “a psycho-drama, a whodunnit with a twist, but Mark and I also want it to be a crowd-pleaser, and something that's going to get people away from their tellies. It's a steep learning curve for me, because it's a different way of telling a story. Essentially novelists are quite lazy, because they let the reader do all the work for them, but working with actors, even on the first day, they were asking questions about why their character was doing something in a way that a reader would never be able to ask.”
While Dark Road may be Rankin's first excursion into stage drama, he hasn't been shy of exploring other forms previously. An eighteenth century black comedy, The Third Gentleman, was produced on radio in 1997, while he has dabbled in song-writing and spoken-word collaborations, first with the late Jackie Leven on the Jackie Leven Said album, then with Aidan Moffat on the Ballads of the Book compilation, and latterly with Edinburgh indie band Saint Jude's Infirmary on This Will Be The Death of Us, an album that also featured a contribution by painter Jack Vettriano.
“I do all these things,” Rankin says, “and then I go, no, this seems too much like hard work. This is incredibly hard work as well. Speaking as someone who's gone to the theatre throughout his life, I'm very naïve. Seeing how everything works behind the scenes, oh, my God. It's given me a whole new respect for what actors do.”
With this in mind, will Rankin be pursuing drama further?
“We'll see,” he muses, “but I won't make it as complicated next time.”
Dark Road, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, September 25th-October 19th.
Cops on Stage
The Mousetrap – This classic Agatha Christie murder mystery remains the longest running play on the West End, having opened in 1952, and celebrated it's 250,000th performance in 2012. Now a major London tourist attraction, The Mousetrap is set in a remote manor house, where Detective Inspector Trotter, originally plated by Richard Attenburgh, arrives on skis in search of a murderer following the death of a young woman. Once he names the murderer at the end of the play, audiences are traditionally asked not to pass on the information, lest it spoil the ending fir others.
An Inspector Calls – On the face of it, J.B. Priestley's 1945 drama in which the mysterious Inspector Goole interrogates a well to do family following the suicide of a working-class young woman was a standard drawing-room pot-boiler. Look closer, however, and you'll find a class-based critique of societies mores that transcended its genre. Stephen Daldry's 1992 Royal National Theatre revival even tore apart the play's naturalistic setting in an explosive reading which leant heavily on Expressionism, film noir and horror films.
Loot- Joe Orton's vicious farce questioned the very integrity of the police force when Orton's second full-length stage play first appeared in 1965. This was done largely through the figure of Inspector Truscott, a brutal parody of the sort of detective who might grace plays by Christie and Priestley. Truscott, however, is a decidedly bad cop and representative of the seeming hypocrisy of the British state in his relentless pursuit of a couple of young bank robbers.
Filth – Irvine Welsh's 1998 novel about decadent, cocaine taking self-destructive Edinburgh cop Bruce Robertson is about to receive a new lease of life via the about to be released big-screen adaptation starring James McAvoy as Robertson. Filth was first brought to life onstage, however, in Harry Gibson's adaptation for the Citizens Theatre, in which Tam Dean Burn performed solo as Robertson.
The Herald, September 24th 2013