“You can’t just take a screen actor and put them on a theatre stage; it doesn’t work that way.” I found that comment coming out of my mouth as I left the Birmingham REP recently. I went to a matinee of Rebus. Ian Rankin, Rebus’s creator, wrote the story himself, and it was then adapted for stage and has received fairly good reviews. I love a theatre trip; it is always a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
I had never read any Rankin books and I have never seen an episode of Rebus on TV, but I know how highly praised the Rebus stories are so I was looking forward to this. I love detective stories in general, to be honest. Give me a Morse, Marple or Poirot and I am captivated. Give me a Nordic noir and I am intrigued. Give me a Castle or a Murder She Wrote and I am content.
The week before the play I read Knots and Crosses, the first Rebus book. I was impressed. Short, sharp, clever, it ticked the boxes, and I arrived at the theatre with a good enough sense of the character and his background to be able to leap forward in his story to the time in his life when Long Shadows is set – beyond retirement as he is pulled back to an old unsolved case and the ghosts of his past.
The story itself was excellent. The portrayal of the character was along the right lines albeit very different to how I saw Rebus in my head; however, Knots and Crosses was set a long time before this and I do not know what has happened in between these two stories to further shape and damage the character. I also enjoyed the way his past murder victims were frequently on stage providing judgement, accusation, questioning and so on to Rebus as he remembered details from their murders and his past deeds.
But – and I bring myself back to the point of this blog – sound was an issue. Voice projection, to be explicit. It is not the first time I have seen a television actor play a part in a theatre production and had to strain extremely hard to hear what was being said. Being able to project one’s voice is a key skill in a stage performer. With the best will in the world, if the audience cannot hear you, their emotional connection with you is lost, and that is what happened here, with almost every character on the stage.
Almost every character… with the exception of two. Two female actresses who played the two victims from historic cases, the two ghosts, were the best actors in the play, no question. And most distressing was that they were the only two players who had to share a stage bow at the end. All the rest got solo applause. I found that extremely distasteful.
Two of the main characters were played by actors familiar from television. Their voice projection was poor, both in terms of volume and intonation. Their energy on stage waned in the second half, their performance seeming to shrink as though aimed towards a television camera with a narrow field of vision rather than a theatre with an almost 180 degree span of viewers. It seemed stilted. Perhaps this was the director’s choice? The play was dark, set between seedy bars and gloomy offices; small locations, small discoveries. Perhaps the contained performances were intentional? I will never know if that was the intent, but for me, this detective story with these actors did not translate well from screen to stage. The story – its haunted narrative, its hard, tragic corners, demanded more of a performance, more of a strong darkness, more life.
(Aside: please see my past blogs about actors playing roles in a different accent to their own. There is no need, people. Get a Scotchman to play a Scot. There is no shortage of fine Scottish actors.)
That is not to say I did not enjoy the play. As I said, the story was excellent. The set adapted very well to the various locations and the overall tone of the play. I came away still having very much enjoyed my Saturday matinee at the theatre. It just left me wanting a little more. Where I should have been reeling with the scale of Rebus’ decision, and the emotional impact of the story, instead I was wondering what had been said, or wishing it had been said with a little more conviction and grit.
You cannot just take a screen actor and put them on stage and expect the output to be at the same level of impact. They are different skills. Performance, honed take by take to a television camera until it is perfect, require far different abilities than standing in character for two hours or more in front of a live audience and being that character, embodying it fully for the audience for every second. I stand by my judgement. Just as a novel writer requires a different skill set to an editor, and a screenwriter from a director, so too does the screen actor from the stage actor. Cast the right ones and the audience will be with you from start to the bitter end.