The programme at the King’s carried an advertisement for the next production which will be Macbeth, a work which theatrical superstition forbids naming except by some euphemism such as the Scottish Play. Perhaps the curse extends beyond performances of the tragedy itself to other works staged in the same venue or advertised in the same publication, because on the first day of the Edinburgh run of Rebus the lead actor, Charles Lawson, took ill and had to be replaced for the second act by an understudy, Neil McKinven. Levity is permissible because by all accounts McKinven acquitted himself admirably and Lawson was back in harness by Thursday.
With less levity, it may be that the misfortunes occasioned by the mention of Macbeth struck elsewhere and affected the writing and stagecraft. Novelists of the stature of Charles Dickens and Henry James came a cropper when they turned their talents to writing for the stage, but the decision to pair Ian Rankin, author of some twenty crime novels, with playwright Rona Munro, whose work includes the much applauded trilogy, The James Plays, seemed like a gold-plated guarantee. They worked in harmony to compose the storyboard, but it was then left to Munro to attend to the transition to drama. Good start, it seemed, and the two have been loud in their
praise of the other’s abilities, but the best laid schemes …
Fictional detectives can be divided into those for whom illegal activity, murder or robbery, was a sin, Chesterton’s Father Brown being the supreme exemplar, and those for whom it was a crime, such as Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe. Rebus is emphatically of the second category, but that is not to deny that he has his own code of values, detests those who exploit or maltreat other human beings, is enraged at the prospect of villains, of whatever stratum of society, getting away with abuse, deception or harm. The novels of Ian Rankin, like those of Henning Mankell with whom he was friendly, often focused on investigation of a social sore, not merely the diseased reasoning of some deviant. Fleshmarket Close, for instance, started with the murder of an illegal immigrant but widened into questioning society’s attitude to immigration as such.
It may be said that this play does force audiences to consider yet again man’s inhumanity to women, but the writing struggles to achieve any overall impact on the mind or imagination of the people in the stalls. The plot is multi-faceted, with various crimes from different decades, but there is a lack of originality in the events depicted which detracts from the grip of the play. There are two related twists at the very end, and while it would be wrong to reveal them, they are marked by extreme implausibility and do not compel any thinking back over the work.
At best, the play seemed like a revival of the Victorian melodrama which gave audiences that frisson of faux-horror which delighted the denizens of upper circles or readers of penny dreadfuls of other times. There are ghosts who haunt shadowy corners of the mind and the city, there is bloodshed on stage, there is mystery, there is dialogue which provokes laughter, there are some strong one-liners, there are baddies, there is a crisp, unambiguous division between good and evil and the definite sense that vile forces stalk the land. Music, sometimes modern rock delivered in a raucous blast, at others a more ambiguous melody, is called on to create an atmosphere in which a Jekyll and a Hyde, this time two separate characters, stalk each other.
The grim, even sinister, set, designed by TI Green, had a lot of work to do to establish the tone of the work. It was an eye-catching, multi-purpose, if somewhat curious, construction which must have looked splendid on the drawing board but was more dubious in the execution, rather like the play. The walls were dark but the dominant feature was a precarious-looking circular staircase overhanging a void. Simultaneously an interior and exterior, and no meeting place for God-fearing citizens, it could have been removed from the House of Shaws where David Balfour’s wicked Uncle Ebenezer tried to dispose of his nephew.
‘Ye cannae get a drink without some floppyhaired article offering ye a tapas menu.’
The staircase led up to a higher plane, perhaps even to a different dimension, where the ghostly figures of two young women occasionally emerged to emit plaintive cries and demands for justice for being robbed of the promises of the life which lay ahead of them, but this upper area appeared at other moments to indicate the street outside. An alleyway under the stairs stretched to become a domestic area which was primarily Rebus’s home, furnished with nothing more than one armchair and a filing cabinet off to the left, but also serving as the more luxurious flat inhabited by Rebus’ arch-enemy, ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. His affluence was indicated by a second armchair and a well stocked drinks cabinet. The spartan ways of the austere or disordered Rebus clashed with those of his more affluent and showy adversary, as was apparent when Rebus admitted he had not even milk for his tea. Cafferty was scarcely a tea drinker, and he was in any case unlikely to run out of anything.
What had been seen of Rebus in Rankin’s fiction made it clear that the man did not live his life on the sunnier slopes, but he distracted himself from all angst by work. He plodded on, indignant at the misdeeds of the low and high life of Edinburgh, enjoying his pint, sorrowing over the mediocrity of Hibs and struggling with benighted police superiors who impeded his imaginative but often professionally unacceptable devices to snare his prey. His problems with such higher officers have not diminished with time, and the very name of one such, Fraser Morris, causes him to splutter with contemptuous disbelief. Lawson gives a powerful portrayal of the man Rebus, not an individual of great emotional depth or complexity. With a range of grunts, inflections, expressions of incredulity, Lawson effortlessly overcomes the problems of imbuing the character with the multi-faceted physical life required onstage, but left to the imagination of readers.
Rebus is at a loose end. Although never endearing or charming, he has declined. The days of his youth are long gone and now he is retired, elderly, alone, frustrated in part by his inactivity and a sense of futility, but more deeply by a consciousness of failure. A new generation is dominant in his former profession and has taken over the land. The language they talk, the music they enjoy, the food they eat and the way they live are incomprehensible and thus irritating to an already carnaptious man. The world view he now espouses and the language in which he expresses himself is barbed and grouchy, sometimes wittily and memorably so. Not even the pub, presumably the Oxford Bar which now draws tourists, is a safe refuge since, as he says, ‘Ye cannae get a drink without some floppy-haired article offering ye a tapas menu.’
His failure is not only existential, but the expression of a deep regret over the cases he had not been successful in solving. The world is not as he would wish it to be, and the scientific methods of the contemporary police are unfamiliar to him. The course of days is disturbed by an encounter, accompanied by a blast of rock music, on the staircase with young Heather, who is not one of the 25% of contemporary under 24s who are teetotal. The two get talking, not in sentimental tones, and Rebus allows himself to rebuke her on the state she is in. He wonders at the cause of her discontent, and it transpires, as it would, that she was the daughter of Maggie Towless, murdered at night some seventeen years previously on a building site in Newhaven. Of course Rebus remembers the woman. He had been in charge of the investigation, but never succeeded in bringing the killer to justice.
Maggie herself, in the company of another young woman who had been more recently murdered, returns to reproach him, so the play moves between various timescales and levels of reality. The more immediate complication is the arrival of his ex-colleague, DI Siobhan Clarke. She too seemed to have altered with the years, or perhaps with the intervention of Rona Munro in the creative process. Actress Cathy Tyson did not seem quite sure what to make of her, and her performance was in some scenes strangely faltering. Siobhan herself was less in awe of Rebus than in the novels, and more intent on ordering him about and going her own way, even if she was at an uncertain point in her own career. Should she put in for promotion, or should she change tack altogether? Rebus wonders if she could really do anything else.
Meantime, she is in pursuit of the killer of Angela, another young female victim, and is intent on hauling in another of Edinburgh’s psychopaths, one Mordaunt. Here things get tricky, for all paths cross. Her concern is that Rebus’s disquiet and desire to settle scores will lead him to interfere with her plans to bring at Mordaunt to justice. She is decidedly more decisive and assertive than the Siobhan of old, but even so she has to be moved aside when the central clash of the play, which brings Rebus face to face with ‘Big Ger’, takes place.
This encounter takes place in Big Ger’s flat and occupies most of the second Act. John Stahl inhabits with little effort and appropriate gracelessness the skin of a man who is meant to be odious, but cannot avoid exercising the power and paradoxical attractiveness of a hissing snake. The two men sneer and slang at each other in a wide-ranging discussion not just over their lives and specific crimes but over morals and manners, crime and law, the rewards of materialism against those of conscience. Big Ger expounds a mafia-style code of belief, that ‘they’ are all at it, that might is right and has brought him a style of life more easeful in every sphere than that attained by Rebus. In love, or at least in sex, you get what you pay for, he says, but then, unexpectedly and jarringly, he turns out to be a big softie with unfulfilled emotional longings, so the play ends with two strange twists which frankly strain credulity. The Victorians did this sort of thing better.