Ian Rankin’s most famous character takes centre stage tonight in Birmingham in a play adapted by Rona Munro. Brian Ferguson meets the team behind Long Shadows – including the latest Rebus – ahead of its Scottish run
It has been more than 30 years since Inspector Rebus cracked his first case.
Now Ian Rankin is preparing for the prospect of seeing his creation in the flesh for the first time.
Fans of the grizzled Edinburgh detective will be able to see him in a whole new light from this week when the character finally makes his stage debut.
Long Shadows, the first Rebus story to be penned with another writer, has seen Rankin collaborate with Rona Munro, the Aberdeen-born playwright best known for her epic historical trilogy The James Plays.
The show, which will premiere at Birmingham Rep tonight before a King’s Theatre run on Rebus’s home turf next month, is not only a brand new Rebus story. Devotees of the retired detective will also get the chance to see him lock horns on stage with his long-time nemesis, Maurice “Big Ger” Cafferty.
I love the idea of being able to see Rebus in the flesh
The characters will be brought to life by Coronation Street veteran Charlie Lawson, the Northern Irish actor known to millions of viewers as Jim McDonald, and Scottish Game of Thrones star John Stahl, with award-winning actress Cathy Tyson, who shot to fame in film debut Mona Lisa, playing Rebus’s long-time sidekick Siobhan Clarke.
Long Shadows is Rankin’s second venture into the world of theatre after writing Dark Road, which Rebus was noticeably absent from, for the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh five years ago with then artistic director, Mark Thomson.
Rankin and Munro, who had never previously met, began working together on a story after the author was approached by London-based producer Daniel Schumann with the idea of a Rebus stage play.
Rankin says: “I felt it would be an awful lot of work and didn’t feel confident writing for the stage on my own, but told him I would be happy doing it with someone else.
“He mentioned Rona Munro to me. I was a huge fan of her work like The James Plays, but didn’t know her at all. We met up a few times and got on like a house on fire.
“She was a fan of the books, which helped, but we decided early on that we didn’t want to adapt any of them.
“You can tie yourself up in knots trying to adapt something that wasn’t specifically written for the stage. The Rebus novels usually have 30-odd characters, three or four twisty sub-plots and are hundreds of pages long.
“I came up with the outline of a story and we would go for cups of tea and lunches and just brainstorm it. Once we had what we thought was the right plot she went away and did the dialogue.”
Munro, whose previous stage plays include The Last Witch, about the last woman to be executed in Britain, and has written Doctor Who stories for TV, jumped at the chance to work with Rankin.
She says: “My mother was a monster Ian Rankin fan. I resisted reading them for such a long time. I always felt I was such a disappointment in comparison!
“Crime is a genre that I enjoy reading, but I’m picky. The ones I like I absolutely love, but there is an awful lot of rubbish out there.
“But Ian writes proper novels and Rebus is such a complicated character. If you read the books you get the opportunity to follow him over all those years and I think that’s part of the attraction. I actually went back and re-read all the novels which featured Cafferty in preparation for working on the play.
“I’ve never done anything like this, which is writing in another writer’s style with another writer’s characters.
“The writing of it was over a year ago, but it felt quite easy at the time, I think because I had someone else’s plot to lean on. I can do dialogue and character any day of the week, but having a tight plot is something I struggle with. It was a bit of a dream in that sense.”
Long Shadows, which is described by Rankin as a “psychodrama,” sees Rebus and Cafferty thrust together again after the daughter of a murder victim turns up on the doorstep of the retired detective, who has been investigating cold cases for several years.
Rankin explains: “I really like the idea of a crime that has happened in the past suddenly rearing its head again in the present.
“There’s some unfinished business between Rebus and Cafferty over an old case and an investigation Siobhan is working brings it to light again, which leads to Rebus and Cafferty locking horns.
“It is really a psychological game, with these two heavyweights kind of dancing around each other.
“I love the idea of being able to see Rebus in the flesh and actually be physically in the same room as him, especially to see him slugging it out with Cafferty.
“They are two big meaty roles – two men who are at a certain point in their lives where they are starting to ask big questions about what is left for them and their place in the world.”
Lawson adds: “Rebus and Cafferty’s ‘friendship’ has been built up over 25 years. They’re very much like Holmes and Moriarty. You can see there is grudging respect for each other, but by the same token they are also battling like two bulls in a ring.”
Lawson freely admits he has come to the role without reading any of Rankin’s novels and knowing nothing about the character.
But the 59-year-old is more than familiar with Rebus’s home city – and his favourite watering hole – since his first visit early 40 years ago.
“I have actually known the Oxford Bar since 1979.
“My cousin Sandy, who was actually my best mate as well, lived on Heriot Row and used to drink in all these haunts like the Ox, the Hebrides and the West End Hotel. I remember Willie Ross, the landlord of the Ox, didn’t allow any women in the bar and would quite easily fling people out at the drop of a hat.
“I met loads of retired police officers there. It was full of very smart alcoholics who did The Scotsman crossword.
“I appeared at the Assembly Rooms during the Edinburgh Festival in 1981 in a show called Diary of a Hunger Strike and have been to Edinburgh many, many times, since then – it’s honestly my favourite city in the world.”
Lawson concedes that all he knew about the character of Rebus when he was offered the part in the play, without the need for an audition, was that he had been played by John Hannah and Ken Stott in the TV incarnations of some of Rankin’s early novels.
He adds: “It was one of those things that was a ‘yes’ straight away. You don’t turn something like this down. You need to really challenge yourself now and again as an actor.
“I’m quite glad I was unfamiliar with the character. You don’t want to bring baggage like that with you to a role. I approached it with a blank sheet of paper from day one. I’m right in the thick of it now.
“The complexities of Rebus are obvious. We’re not doing some existential piece. His faults are all there, warts and all, from page one.”
Rankin is at pains to point out to his fans that the new play is set in a “parallel world” to the one created in his novels.
He adds: “There are basically going to be two audiences – people who know and love Rebus and people who just want a good night out at the theatre and might never have read any of the books.
“It slots into the Rebus universe. You get a bit more of Cafferty’s back story and a bit more of Rebus’s working relationship with Siobhan Clarke.
“It’s a really great cast and it will hopefully bring in people who know them but might not know me. I might get a few new fans out of it, you never know.”
A LIFE OF CRIME: REBUS IN PRINT AND ON SCREEN
Inspector John Rebus made his debut in Ian Rankin’s second novel, Knots and Crosses, which was published in March 1987.
The Fife-born author had begun writing novels while he was supposed to be working towards a PhD in Scottish literature at Edinburgh University.
Rankin was said to have been surprised that the first Rebus thriller was classified as crime fiction when he had set out to write a modern-day version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Rankin has admitted Rebus was actually killed off in the first draft of Knots and Crosses and he was persuaded by his publisher to revive the character in another novel.
The character has appeared in a further 20 novels since then, despite an apparent swan song more than a decade ago in Exit Music, which signalled his official retirement from the force.
However, after a five-year hiatus, Rankin has gone on to revive the character in another four novels, which have seen Rebus help serving detectives to investigate unresolved “cold cases.”
As well as the new stage play, Rankin is about to publish a brand new Rebus novel, In a House of Lies.
More than 30 million Rebus novels are believed to have been sold around the world, while the books have been translated into 36 different languages to date.
The most recent Rebus novel, Rather be the Devil, topped the best-seller charts for hardback fiction when it was released in November 2016.
New Rebus novels are said to sell as many as half a million copies within just a few months of printing.
Rankin, his publisher Orion and the Edinburgh International Book Festival marked the 30th anniversary of the detective last year by staging a three-day festival in the character’s home city.
The first “RebusFest” included masterclasses, workshops, tours, live music and film events, and an exhibition of rarely-seen archive material.
Rankin’s novels have previously been adapted for television by STV Productions, with John Hannah and then Ken Stott playing the leading role.
However production was brought to a halt in 2008 amid reports Stott had decided he did not want to continue in the role.
It was announced last year that Gregory Burke, the writer of the hit plays Gagarin Way and Black Watch, was working on a new “contemporary adaptation” of Rebus for TV.
Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year, Rankin revealed that a much younger actor than Stott was likely to play the role when Rebus returns to the nation’s TV screens. The character was said to be 40 when he first appeared in Knots and Crosses.
Other actors to play Rebus include Ron Donachie, who starred as the detective in Radio 4’s dramatisations of some of the novels, while James MacPherson, who is best-known for his long-running role in Taggart, has narrated audiobook versions of the novels.
Rankin, who was awarded the OBE in 2002 for services to literature, has been the recipient of honorary degrees from the universities of Abertay, St Andrews, Hull and Edinburgh.
Rebus: Long Shadows opens at Birmingham Rep tonight, and will be at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh from 8-13 October (tickets from £18-£31.50, box office tel: 0131-529 6000, www.capitaltheatres.com) and His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen from 12-17 November (tickets from £13.50-£37.50, box office tel: 01224 641122, www.aberdeenperformingarts.com).