March 19 marks the publication date of two plays by two established authors: The White Card, the debut play by poet Claudia Rankine, and Rebus: Long Shadows, the sophomore stage effort of novelist Ian Rankin. PW asked both authors to discuss the differences between writing for the page and for the stage, watching their work take life in the theater, and more. Here's what Rankin had to say.
What made you decide to write Long Shadows, and specifically to format it as a play?
I had co-written one stage play previously (Dark Road) and enjoyed the experience of working collegiately with a co-writer/director. I also was intrigued to see my creations (Inspector John Rebus and his nemesis, the gangster Morris Gerald Cafferty) squaring up to one another in three dimensions. I wanted to be in that room with them when it all happened. My co-writer, Rona Munro, a brilliant playwright and screenwriter, was keen that we ensure it was a story that could only be told on the stage. We worked hard at the plot, and Rona perfected the structure.
Rebus has been brought to the small screen before, but never to the stage. What are some of the major differences you see in those adaptations?
I've never really written for the screen, though works of mine have been adapted. Being a novelist makes one quite lazy—I can have as many scenes, characters, and costume changes as I want! On the stage, there is neither room nor time for any of that. And on stage the characters can address the audience directly. The writer's "voice" disappears; the writer is at the mercy of the actors. One more thing: when I sit in the theater, I know immediately if the writing is having the intended impact. Are the audience laughing in the right places? Are they gasping in surprise at each new revelation? The response is immediate and visceral, which is not something novelists generally have to contend with.
What are some of the differences between the way you write fiction and the way you write for the stage?
Stage plays are very different beasts from novels. How many actors can we afford to hire? Will this staging work in a variety of different theaters? Does that actor have enough time to change costume between exit and entrance? Oh, and theaters like it if you can ensure an intermission. (That way, they make a decent profit from the bar!) In the recent novels, Rebus has a dog—we decided that would be a difficult ask onstage! A stage play is more akin to the treatment for a film, or storyboarding a graphic novel. Much of the impact comes from the actors' delivery, their mannerisms and choreography. They are actively telling the audience the story. It's no longer a case of ink on a page.
What was it like working with a collaborator on the play?
Being a novelist is a largely solitary existence. I never discuss my novels with anyone while I'm writing them. I just get on with it. But collaboration can be fun, and can also stretch you as a writer. Rona Munro taught me a lot about writing for performance and about how an actor can lift the dialogue and give it fresh resonance. Rona is also very good on masculinity, and I was fascinated by her take on Rebus and Cafferty, those battle-scarred pugilists from a fading world.
The play premiered last year in the U.K. What are your thoughts on its staging?
I wasn't able to attend any of the rehearsals of the play, so my first encounter with the staging was on opening night in Birmingham, England. This was in the fall of 2018. I was nervous but I immediately warmed to the set, which had the simplicity of Greek drama, indicating that although the action takes place in contemporary Edinburgh, this is the continuation of ancient narrative themes. Having said that, there were definitely "wow" moments for me—not least when Rebus's rather nondescript apartment is transformed into Cafferty's ritzy penthouse!
Why publish the play in book form, months after its theatrical run?
Although the play has toured widely in the U.K., no theaters outside the U.K. have yet snapped it up. There are many fans of Rebus around the world who may never get the chance to see it "in the flesh" and who really want to find out what he's up to outside the pages of the novels. It's not the same as being in the audience, but maybe it's the next best thing.
Would you put Rebus back on the stage, if given your druthers?
I have been approached to write another Rebus stage play. I've not yet said yes.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
Right now I'm moving houses, so no writing is getting done. But I've got the inkling of an idea for another novel, so I'm hoping to get back to writing in the second half of the year.