Why do we see crime drama on screen so much, but not on the stage?

That was the question workaholic crime writer Ian Rankin had to answer by co-writing a stage play – even though he’s meant to be taking some time off
Ian Rankin has co-written a stage play, Dark Road. Picture: Ian RutherfordIan Rankin has co-written a stage play, Dark Road. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Ian Rankin has co-written a stage play, Dark Road. Picture: Ian Rutherford

FOR A man who recently announced that he’d be taking some time off to “recharge my batteries”, Ian Rankin doesn’t exactly look like he’s slowing down.

It’s week one of rehearsals of his first play, a “psychological thriller” called Dark Road. Rankin, as well as various cast members and his co-writer and the show’s director, Mark Thomson, has just emerged from the rehearsal room for a lunch break. Brows are furrowed, lines are being learned. It’s only day two and the work is all ahead.

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The question of why a man who has sold millions of novels and whose books have been translated into 22 languages, would give himself the challenge of taking on a completely new literary form in a schedule already packed with writing (Saints Of The Shadow Bible, the new Rebus novel, will be published in November) book festival appearances, tours, and signings, is anyone’s guess. Happily, though, it seems that Rankin is enjoying, albeit it in a slightly trepidatious way, his new undertaking.

“It’s just fascinating,” he says, sitting beside Thomson, sandwiches on the table in front of them. “I’ve almost never been in the position where I’ve had to collaborate, or where I’ve been sitting watching actors doing stuff. I had no role in the TV dramatisations.” In fact, he’s never watched any of the television adaptations of the Rebus novels, he says. He didn’t see John Hannah’s slightly anaemic take on his most famous character, nor the infinitely more textured version created by Ken Stott. “I never even read a script. I just walked away.”

Writing drama may be new to him, but there’s much about the play that is trademark Rankin. Dark Road is a psychological thriller (Thomson describes it as a “did he do it? rather than a whodunnit”). Set in contemporary Edinburgh – the city that Rankin, 53, has made his home for the past 20 years, the place that has long fired his imagination with its Jekyll and Hyde dichotomies – the central character is a woman police officer. And although Isobel McArthur (who’ll be played in the production by Scottish stage stalwart Maureen Beattie) might not be quite as battle-scarred as Rebus or as taciturn as Rankin’s other literary creation, the internal affairs cop Malcolm Fox, she is a character living with the legacy of her career, haunted by the conviction of a serial killer a quarter of a century ago.

“I was trying to get inside the head of this woman just as she’s having doubts about her whole career and her personal life as well,” he says. “When you write a novel there’s a naturalism or a realism to what you’re creating, writing about contemporary Edinburgh, but if you start to write a play about a woman who is maybe starting to lose it a little bit, you can actually show that in a way that you can’t in a book.”

The idea for the play first emerged a couple of years ago, during one of Rankin and Thomson’s regular meetings when they’d get together for “a blether and a catch up”.

“One of our conversations was, why do we see crime drama on screen so much but we don’t see it on stage?” says Rankin.

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“Macbeth did some terrible things,” quips Thomson, “but it’s not quite the same genre.”

Rankin was set the task of coming up with some ideas, before he and Thomson chose one to develop. Rankin was then responsible for the story, Thomson for making sure that what his co-writer came up with could be staged – no cast of thousands, no limitless number of locations and settings. He also had the job of turning Rankin’s prose into dialogue. “Mark said to me it couldn’t be just a dramatisation of a book,” says Rankin. “We’re looking for something that can only be done on the stage, something that can only be done with actors.”

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Rankin and Thomson are easy in each other’s company, clearly friends as well as collaborators. They both acknowledge that there might be a very good reason that crime is less often seen on stage than on TV, but the desire to have a crack at it was enough to kick off the creative process that, nearly two years later, has led to the rehearsal room.

On the day we first meet, the rehearsal room remains out of bounds. It’s still far too early in the process to have a pair of prying eyes, searching around for clues as to what’s going to happen. A couple of weeks later, though, and I start to understand some of Rankin’s fascination with the process of seeing his characters brought to life.

Around the rehearsal space there’s a wheelchair and a hospital bed, a desk and a piano, props that can be called upon to enact every aspect of life. In the centre of the room, a table with a laptop on it sits in front of a sofa. Behind there’s a small side table with a lamp and a phone. It’s a living room. The actors, with scripts in hands, still chewing over lines, move around trying out different positions on a floor marked with black tape. It’s a scene of high drama – the slightest move, a glance, a gesture changes the way it plays. Thomson walks back and forth, flicking through his script, directing movements – downstage, upstage, small turns, different inflections. At the back, the assistant director sits behind a table covered in papers, the composer sits in front of his laptop. The concentration is palpable.

“What bowls me over is just the complexity,” Rankin says, “the stuff that you don’t see when you come to the theatre. You’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg because there’s all the stuff that’s had to happen to get to that stage. The first thing I saw when I walked into the rehearsal room was an architectural plan of the set, a floorplan. And then we’ve got the maquettes [small, scale models of the sets] which are really cute with the little props in them. Then suddenly there’s a guy sitting there and you’re like, ‘What do you do?’ and he says ‘I’m the composer’.”

It’s clear for a man used to sitting alone at his desk as he writes his novels, the collaborative aspect of working in the theatre has got Rankin hooked.

“I’ve always said it,” he says, between bites of sandwich, “novelists are incredibly lazy people – we make the reader do all the work. We sit there and write the stuff down but the reader interprets it as they see fit. You can’t do that when there are people on the stage acting it out.”

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“As a novelist you’re in perfect control,” says Thomson, “it’s all exactly so. Actors won’t do what’s in your head and nor should they. So it’s not just that we had to collaborate, with both of us shaping the work. We had to take it into a room with actors and then there’s another collaboration.”

Rankin nods. “Every time an actor says a line, or two are engaged in a dialogue, every time you do it there’s a slightly different intonation or different pauses. You never get that on the page when you’re just reading it once. It’s fascinating but it does play tricks with your head – you start to think, do I really know this story?”

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Thomson laughs. It’s clear it’s not the first time he’s heard this concern from a writer.

“It’s not doubt,” Rankin clarifies, “it’s just different interpretations. You know that when you wrote it down there was one possible interpretation – my one. But everyone that comes along can interpret it differently and make it sound different by changing the stress in a sentence or just by changing a look between the actors or how they move around the room.

“It’s great. It’s terrifying. When I send my novel off to my publisher, it’s a third or fourth draft, and although the editor will have a go at it, I can say no, I want it the way that it was. When you’re starting out, as I am in this business, everyone can say to you: ‘Sorry, that doesn’t work. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ It’s an exercise in humility.” He smiles and Thomson laughs.

As to the question that started this whole thing off – whether the crime genre can work in the theatre – both men are clear that there will be no answer until opening night.

“The audience will tell us,” says Rankin. “When you write a novel and send it out into the world, people read it as individuals, they’re not all sitting in the same place reading it for the first time. When you go into the theatre on the first night, you’re soon going to know whether they’re getting it or not, whether they’re enjoying it or not.”

Rankin jokes about taking up his position at the bar on opening night, nervously listening to what’s going on in the auditorium. He might be exaggerating for my benefit, but he must also know that as well his legions of fans, who’ll be eager that his new dramatic creation is a success, there will be plenty of less charitable sorts quite excited at the prospect of the play being less than brilliant. He shrugs.

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“There will be a few folk there from the Oxford Bar, I think. ‘Is Ian going to fall flat on his face?’ ‘Does he get found out this time?’ And my wife is saying, ‘I’m going to bring all my mates along.’” He looks horrified. “I’m just thinking, are there any of my family around who will be embarrassed by nudity and bad language in the theatre? Actually there’s no nudity…”

“Not yet,” quips Thomson.

They laugh.

“What’s the worst that can happen?” says Rankin with a shrug. “As with any piece of writing you’re just trying to make it as good as you possibly can and it’s for other people to tell you if it’s any good or not. You just never know.”

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Lunch break over, we walk back down towards the rehearsal room. Rankin pushes open the door to give me a peek at where they’re working. He’s excited about the set, although he’s been sworn to secrecy regarding its “wow factor”. His enthusiasm makes me wonder if his appetite has been whetted by this new way of working. Perhaps this could be the start of a glorious new chapter in his career?

“It hasn’t put me off,” he says with trademark understatement. “And there are definite benefits; getting to hang around with actors and people who work in theatre, because they’re all interesting in their own right. And it does stretch you – it makes you think about storytelling in different ways.” He pauses. “So far it’s been fun. Or at least it’s not been like a trip to the dentist.” n

Twitter: @scottiesays

• Dark Road, Wednesday until October 19, at 
the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh. For tickets 
(from £14-£27.50 for the 7.45pm performance) and information, tel: 0131-248 4848 or visit