Ian Rankin on bringing Rebus to the stage

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BEST known as Jim McDonald in Coronation Street, Irish actor Charles Lawson was all set to take on one of the biggest challenges of his career at The King’s this week.

Unfortunately, ill health mid-way through the opening performance of Ian Rankin and Rona Munro’s new play Rebus: Long Shadows, curtailed his bid to follow in the footsteps of John Hannah and Ken Stott by bringing Rebus home to the Capital.

Embodying such a loved literary character is never an easy task for an actor – after all, fans of the novels have a already conjured up an image of the hard-drinking detective in their mind’s eye.

Sitting in the Circle Bar of the King’s Theatre ahead of the Scottish premiere, Rankin reflects: “Every actor brings something new and different to Rebus, but if they’ve got great lines to work with and a very meaty character, you have a lot on your side from the get go.”

In Rebus: Long Shadows, which runs all this week at the Leven Street theatre (now with understudy Neil McKinven in the title role), the eponymous investigator is reunited with one of his most recognisable adversaries, Big Ger Cafferty.

Rebus, now retired, has his interest in an unsolved murder piqued when the daughter of the victim appears in his stair.

Meanwhile, his ex-sidekick DI Siobhan Clarke is worried his past actions may stop the conviction of a dangerous killer.

Enter local gangster Big Ger...

Rankin saw the first preview of the show when it opened in Birmingham three weeks ago and remembers his thoughts on discovering who had been cast as his surly detective.

“When I saw a photograph of Charles Lawson I thought, ‘Yes, looks pretty good to me’.

“Charlie is a great actor and everyone who knew him said, ‘Oh, he can do a great Scottish accent’. Still, you think, ‘But can he?’

“We mostly know him from Coronation Street but I discovered he has spent a lot of time in Edinburgh and that he actually drank in the Oxford Bar [Rebus’s and Rankin’s local] before I did.”

Rankin’s initial impression that Lawson was the right man for the role was reinforced when he watched that first preview.

“Straight away the hairs went up on my arms; the reason I wanted Long Shadows done on stage was to see these two big characters, Rebus and Cafferty, knocking seven bells out of each other, psychologically if not physically. They’re at an age now where the physical stuff doesn’t come so easily.”

Admitting he doesn’t have “a really clear of what Rebus looks like” because he “mostly looks at the world through his eyes”, the writer reflects on those to have inhabited the role so far.

“Fans felt John Hannah was a bit too young, but if he hadn’t come on board it wouldn’t have got made, so I owe him a huge debt of thanks,” Rankin says.

“Ken Stott took a bit of persuading – he’d played cops a lot and wasn’t sure he wanted to do it again.

“Fans felt that physically he was more like the Rebus they knew from the books.

“And remember Rebus was played on radio, too.”

Alexander Morton first brought the character to the airwaves in 1999, while more recently Ron Donachie played the role.

Which begs the question; is there much of Rankin himself invested in the character?

“Not much,” he insists. “We both grew up in the same place, Cardenden, but he’s in his late-60s and I’m late-5os (there’s always been an age gap although it used to be bigger). I’ve never smoked and I’m not as much of a loner as he is.

“But the figure of the detective is very like that of the novelist, we’re both looking for answers, at what is going on beneath the surface.

“That’s what crime fiction is about, the stuff going on all the time that we never see.

“Edinburgh is perfect for that because on the surface it looks refined and civilised, but scratch the surface and there are a lot of terrible things happening.”

Working with award-winning playwright Munro, Long Shadows is Rankin’s second collaboration for the stage, the first being Dark Road with Mark Thomson for the Royal Lyceum in 2013.

Might he be tempted to collaborate on a third?

He swithers: “It’s one of these things; Rona said to me, ‘Ian, your memory of this process makes it all seem much more straightforward and relaxed than I remember it... so she was probably doing the bulk of the work... and the bulk of the panicking.”

Rebus: Long Shadows, King’s Theatre, Leven Street, until Saturday, £18-£31.50, 0131-529 6000

The latest Rebus novel, In a House of Lies, is out now in hardback, published by Orion, £20

Investigating Murder: An Evening with Ian Rankin and special guests, Queens Hall, Clerk Street, 16 October, 7.30pm, £17, 0131-668 2019