Rebus: Rankin's gritty Scottish detective to make stage debut

Rebus, the abrasive, hard-drinking and brilliant Edinburgh detective created by Ian Rankin, is to be the star of a new stage play.

The author has collaborated with the playwright Rona Munro for a new crime story to be solved by the dour detective, the protagonist of 24 books that have sold more than 30m copies across the world.

Rebus has twice been portrayed on television, by John Hannah and Ken Stott. This week producers will announce that he is now heading to the stage.

Rankin said he had long wanted to put Rebus in theatres and had talked to various producers and directors over the years. When Munro’s name was floated he was delighted. “When she said yes I thought: let’s give it a go,” Rankin said.

Rona Munro

He follows many crime writers, notably Agatha Christie, who have had their work dramatised for the stage. Often it is an adaptation of a book, but in this case Rankin and Munro have worked together on a new and distinct story.

“It is always a challenge for a novelist because a novelist gets to play God,” said Rankin. “Nobody else gets a say in what I’m doing or how I’m doing it.

“As soon as it becomes a collaborative process there’s got to be some give and take, but one of the great things about writing this was that when we got together it was always exciting, we were always coming up with ideas, finding solutions to problems.”

The play has been written to fit in with the timeline of the novels’ universe, featuring a retired Rebus consulting on cold cases.

“His health is catching up with him,” said Rankin. “He’s no longer able to get into fights or chase suspects in the way he could 20 years ago, but we all go through that. I think readers like that, fans of the books like that as they are getting older and creakier so is Rebus.”

Rankin said the play was a whodunnit that would require the audience to work. “At the same time we were focused on it as a character study; a study of this complex man towards the end of his working life, wondering if he still makes a difference or not.”

Munro, a prolific playwright, is also known by sci-fi fans as the writer of the last of the “classic” Doctor Who stories – the 1989 serial Survival in which Sylvester McCoy battles The Master on a planet of cheetah people.

Munro said she was a Rankin fan whose mother always asked, in conversations about her writing, whether she had read the latest Rebus. “I was always under the shadow of a greater writer and it’s testament to his writing that I don’t hate his guts,” she said.

She said adapting Rebus had been “daunting and exhilarating”. The character was a brilliant example of a certain type of Scottishness, she said – a man far more aware of his flaws than those around him.

Rebus: Long Shadows will premiere at the Birmingham Repertory theatre in September, directed by the Rep’s artistic director, Roxana Silbert. It is expected to tour the UK afterwards, including Rebus’s Edinburgh stomping ground.

The actor Charles Lawson, best known as Jim McDonald in Coronation Street, will play Rebus. Rankin said: “I don’t really know what Rebus looks like because I’m looking at the world through his eyes.

“When people say ‘is this actor a close fit for Rebus?’, I go: ‘I’ve no idea, I really don’t.’”

The 25th Rebus mystery will be published in October. But now the detective has retired from the police force, the lingering question is: how much longer can Rankin keep him going? “I don’t know, I just always think … maybe there’s one more?” he said.

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