Ian Rankin’s Dark Road takes stage at Royal Lyceum

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IAN Rankin is used to being in charge. Most authors are. After all, if not they, who decides what happens to their creations? So you might say that the last few weeks have taken the man who brought us Inspector Rebus on a bit of a journey.

Rankin has been enjoying his first soiree into the world of theatre, co-writing the Royal Lyceum’s season opener, the crime thriller Dark Road, with the company’s artistic director Mark Thomson.

Dark Road, written by Ian Rankin,  is appearing at the Lyceum Theatre. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Dark Road, written by Ian Rankin, is appearing at the Lyceum Theatre. Picture: Ian Rutherford

It’s been an exciting journey for the 53-year-old, who admits there were times the writer in him had to bite his tongue.

“It’s nice to stretch yourself as a writer, you can get a bit too comfortable writing the same kind of things over and over again,” he offers.

“Collaboration was interesting, getting someone else’s viewpoint all the time, because Mark and I wrote this together – it was not just me. Then sitting back and watching the words come to life and fly off the page when good actors got involved. That has been fantastic.

“People in the theatre always talk about a journey, and it really has been a journey.”

That journey hasn’t been without its problems admits Rankin.

“It is challenging. As a novelist you are used to having complete control. I knew from the outset it was going to be a collaboration, but it has been fascinating.

“When you go to the theatre as a punter you just go once. Seeing it over several nights, you find every night is subtly different. I hadn’t realised how much of a living 
organism a play was.”

Not so much a who-dun-it as a did-he-do-it, Dark Road, which has been packing them in for the last two weeks, runs until Saturday.

Gritty and gory, it tells the story of Chief Superintendent Isobel McArthur, played by Maureen Beattie. On the verge of retirement, McArthur finds herself having second thoughts about a prosecution she was involved with 25 years before. Could she have sent the wrong man to prison for the horrific murders of four Edinburgh girls? Is Alfred Chalmers (Philip Whitchurch) a monstrous serial killer or an innocent man? Read on, only if you don’t mind spoilers.

“I love standing at the back watching the audience’s reactions, those moments when they jump out of their seats and then have a wee collective laugh to lessen the tension,” says Rankin. “That is what we wanted to do. We wanted to get a lot of bums on seats.

“To show folks who just watch their crime on TV or in the cinema that in the theatre, it’s a very 
different experience.”

It’s an experience Rankin obviously enjoyed as he reveals that the characters that finally took to the stage were very different to the ones he heard in his head as he wrote the script with Thomson – but then, the actors did have a lot of input.

“It was surprising sometimes. I hadn’t realised they were going to get Robert Gwilym, who is a Welsh actor, to play the CID officer Frank. When I wrote that character I didn’t think of him as being Welsh.

“And then Phil Whitchurch, who is actually a Liverpudlian, decided it would be good if Chalmers was a Geordie. That was interesting, there is just something nice about the lilt of a Geordie voice, something quite friendly about it, and that just made him more sinister.

“That all added texture to the characters that wasn’t there on the page – I tend to hear genetic Scottish voices in my head when I write. What we got on the stage was very different.”

The rehearsal process also proved an eye-opener for the novelist.

“Having been to the theatre many times but never having seen behind the scenes, I found the whole thing absolutely fascinating.

“Everything from the initial read-through, to the rehearsals, to the stage set being ready, to seeing them in costume... just watching the whole thing come together, I realised there is so much more to it than just the text.

“What I wrote was a plot, a story and what the actors and director and everybody else did was give it life.”

Cagey about whether he has developed a taste for writing plays, Rankin thinks for a moment before he says, “It hasn’t put me off. What it has done is show me the challenges. If I was doing another play, I’m not sure I would make it as complex in terms of what you need to do to get it to stage properly. We wanted to do a roller-coaster ride; a big juicy thriller that had the audience buzzing.”

Dark Road has certainly done that. So might we see more of Chief Superintendent Isobel McArthur?

“Maureen says, and I don’t remember saying this, that I promised her that she’ll wake up from her coma...” he laughs, “but I don’t know.”

Dark Road, Royal Lyceum, Grindlay Street, until Saturday, 7.45pm (matinees 2.30pm), £12-£27.50, 0131-248 4848