IAN Rankin’s name is synonymous with that of Detective Inspector John Rebus, the surly Fife-born copper who keeps the streets of the Capital safe by whatever means he can.
So it’s hardly surprising that his character crops up in conversation about the Royal Lyceum’s 2013/14 season opener Dark Road, which previews to audiences from tomorrow.
Co-written with the Lyceum’s artistic director Mark Thomson, who also directs, Dark Road is Rankin’s debut stage play.
‘Tense, tough and gritty’, it is billed as ‘a gripping psychological battle of wit and will’ played out between a serial killer, who has protested his innocence for 25 years, and a police chief having a crisis of conscience.
Alfred Chalmers has spent 25 years in prison for the horrific murders of four young girls in the Capital. Isobel McArthur, Scotland’s first female Chief Constable, was one of the team responsible for putting him away. But his conviction has always haunted her.
Approaching retirement, and hungry for answers, she decides to review the case and meet Chalmers in prison, unaware that her own daughter – the ambitious and promiscuous Alexandra – has struck up her own bizarre and disturbing relationship with the killer.
Lyceum favourite Maureen Beattie plays the troubled McArthur and assures she has no qualms about the Rebus connection.
“As far as I am concerned, it’s a thrill to be working with Ian Rankin. This is a man of genius, he’s at the top of his game, the most successful crime-writer in Britain, and I’m sitting there, chatting with him about art, life and the universe.
“Having him in the rehearsal room is just fantastic. He’s so supportive, such a benevolent presence, especially when you think of all the dark material he writes - and this play is very dark. But he, as a person, is not like that at all.”
She laughs, “So you can say Rebus as often as you like.”
Like Rebus, Chief Superintendant McArthur has a dark side, one Beattie believes necessary to reach such a powerful position, especially as a female.
“In the play you discover a lot about what happened to her over a 30-year journey,” she reveals. “There’s tons of stuff to play with and the fact that she is the first female boss character that Ian has created is thrilling. She definitely has a darker side.
“It’s wonderful what Ian and Mark have managed to do between them (and hopefully with my help in rehearsals), to create a multi-layered and multifaceted character. You’re never quite sure what she is going to do next - indeed, she is never quite sure either.
“She needs that dark side to take her to where she is. She was Scotland’s first female Chief Constable, in charge of her area, but because of the restructuring of the Force there is now only one Chief Constable in Scotland and she has been demoted to Chief Superintendent. Even then, to have got to that position as a woman you have to be pretty bloody good at your job, pretty fearsome and not worried about taking no prisoners.”
The award-winning actress, known to millions as nurse Sandra Nichol in Casualty, is joined on stage by Philip Whitchurch, best known as Captain William Frederickson in the ITV drama Sharpe, as Chalmers.
Beattie is no stranger to playing powerful female coppers. As Chief Superintendent Jane Fitzwilliam she handed out the orders in The Bill from 2002 to 2003 - a role that taught her that nothing creates authority better than a well designed police uniform.
“There is something about putting that uniform on which is extraordinary - even just putting on the hat, you see people react.
“These uniforms are so brilliantly designed. They look good on everybody. It doesn’t matter if you are a wee round person or a tall skinny person with no shoulders, they really flatter. Instantly, they make you look like you mean business.”
And a good costume is vital to creating a role on stage Beattie explains. “Belle Jones, who plays a psychiatric nurse in Dark Road, and I were just discussing that, “ she recalls, “how important what you’re wearing is to an actor...
“That moment, just before you go on stage when, without thinking, you look at yourself in a full-length mirror (there’s always one either in your dressing room or just before you step onto the stage) and see who you are. It’s a fantastically supportive thing if you can look in that mirror and go, ‘Yup, there she is’.”
Decked out in serge, Beattie may well look the part, but she confesses a life on the beat is not one for which she could ever have signed up.
“I admire everyone in industries which basically serve us and, having done Casualty, admire nurses more than I can put into words. All these people quietly get on with their jobs. Of course, there are the glamorous ones, the Jane Fitzwilliams, but actually, the foot soldiers are the ones on the front line. I couldn’t be doing anything like that.”
Dark Road, Royal Lyceum, tomorrow-19 October, 7.45pm (matinees 2.30pm), £12-£27.50, 0131-248 4848