Cathy Tyson wasn’t overly familiar with Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels when she was cast as DI Siobhan Clarke in Rona Munro’s new stage play penned in association with Rankin. Rebus: Long Shadows, which arrived in Edinburgh this week as part of a UK tour, makes up the latest episode of the now retired Edinburgh detective’s dissection of the city’s underbelly. Coming to a fictional icon who has already been immortalised on TV and radio cold had its advantages for Tyson.
“At the beginning of rehearsal I’d only read the one book,” she says shortly after Long Shadows opened at Birmingham Rep, one of the show’s co-producers. “John Stahl who’s in the show had read all twenty-one.”
This didn’t stop Tyson getting stuck in to a relationship between the characters that’s likely to be scrutinised closely by diehard fans in a way that those in other plays might not.
“I knew there was a relationship there between Rebus and Siobhan, where he was the maverick and she did things by the book, says Tyson. “As we went on I had to adjust how I was doing it, just to get some level of affection and authenticity rather than just telling Rebus off all the time.”
While Rebus, played onstage by Charles Lawson, is a classic unreconstructed male, Siobhan is a voice of progress that seems tailor-made for Tyson.
“I guess I’m still getting to know her,” Tyson says. “I struggled with her at first, because I was either one extreme or the other, but she’s a team player, and that’s an amazing value to have. It lends a humility to her that is very appealing. She has integrity, but she isn’t sentimental, because she can’t afford to be.”
This was something reflected in Tyson’s researches.
“I spoke to one woman DI,” she says, “and it’s a world where she’s surrounded by men, and for her to get that far at all in that world has probably been really hard, just in terms of the perception of a female DI by some of her colleagues. It’s a physical job. She has to chase people and handcuff them. I’ve been called brave sometimes, but it’s not that kind of brave, when she’s putting herself on the frontline in that way.”
Munro’s play is looking at some very contemporary mores, with Siobhan providing a moral centre.
“One of the things I identify with Siobhan,” says Tyson, “is when Rebus says that people who attack young women should all be put away, and Siobhan’s response is to say we need to create a world where no-one would attack a young woman at all. Her job would kill me. I thought actors were committed, but this is an eye-opener. To have that level of commitment to get a case solved, they seem to be working all the time.”
Tyson hasn’t exactly been slacking over the last thirty-odd years since she first became involved in drama in Liverpool as a schoolgirl.
“We did drama three hours a week, and it was about learning in a different way,” she remembers. “I was discovering this ability to express myself and tell stories, and I improvised a lot, and I enjoyed that, learning on my feet, but it was also about getting to talk to people as you did all this.”
Tyson went on to join the Everyman Youth Theatre, the breeding ground for a generation of Liverpool actors, including David Morrissey, all four McGann brothers and Ian Hart.
“I was there four nights a week,” says Tyson. “I was learning so much, and that definitely played a part in me wanting to take it further.”
Tyson joined the professional Everyman company as part of the government-backed Youth Opportunities Programme, which later morphed into the Youth Training Scheme. This may have been a cynical attempt to massage unemployment figures to less than what they actually were, but for Tyson and others it paid dividends. She was soon playing Miranda in the Everyman’s production of The Tempest. Within a few months she was acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in another two years was onscreen starring opposite Bob Hoskins in Neil Jordan’s film, Mona Lisa. If this sounds precocious, the roots of Tyson’s move into acting go back even earlier.
“My mother took me to see Swan Lake when I as seven or eight,” she says, “so I was aware of theatre from an early age. I remember being in Rhyl in this big proscenium arch theatre, and the spotlight came on me sitting in the audience, and they asked me to come onstage. I went up, and I felt the light on me, and it was lovely. I just felt special. They gave me a gold chocolate coin, and I kept the foil from that for years. I felt like I’d just done something that was a big achievement, and if you’re a shy person it is a big thing, having people watch you like that. I never want to forget how special that is.”
Tyson’s profile was raised through a lead role in Band of Gold and other mainstream TV and film roles. These sit alongside an impressively huge stage CV that features stints with most leading theatres. At some points, however, things didn’t always feel special. With this in mind, Tyson took time out from acting to take an access course before embarking on degree in English and Drama at Brunel University in Bristol.
“I felt jaded,” says Tyson. “Some of the parts coming my way were pointless. They left me with very little to do, and I wasn’t interested in that. I thought, is that it? But doing an English and drama degree gave me back my love of theatre. Although I wasn’t acting, I was seeing loads of plays and writing about them, and I’m very grateful for that.”
Since returning to stage and screen, Tyson’s enthusiasm is evident in everything she says, particularly in relation to Long Shadows and Siobhan.
“We had a post-show discussion in Birmingham,” says Tyson, “and we asked what people thought of Siobhan’s part, and someone said how wonderful it was to see a woman of colour playing Siobhan. I loved that. Hats off to Birmingham Rep. It’s a very diverse theatre, and to see that in a great story like this with characters like Rebus and Siobhan who everybody knows is really important. To then see those characters bounce off each other is also good. It’s a good story with a great plot and a little bit of social comment, and it should keep the audience wondering what’s going to happen next.”
Rebus: Long Shadows, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, October 8-13. His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, November 12-17;
The Herald, October 9th 2018