SPOILER ALERT – for both novel and play I have mentioned key characters and scenes, but I hope I haven’t given too much away.
I’ve read two of David Mark’s crime novels: Original Skin and Dark Winter, in that order. Someone had suggested the author and his Hull-based novels, and the cover to Original Skin intrigued me. It was some months later that I read the first in the series, so I wasn’t introduced to Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy as I was probably supposed to be.
What I particularly enjoyed about the novels was the way in which David Mark describes the city I live in. A scene in Original Skin had me cross the road to avoid Dagger Lane, the image of one death scene so clear in my mind after reading it. I don’t often carry a story with me for very long after finishing a book. Certain books stay with me, but not in the direct nature that David Mark’s descriptions have. I recall with considerable clarity the three deaths in the first half of Dark Winter.
And it was this that made me book the ticket to see the theatre production. I wanted to know how they were going to produce the initial scenes at sea, off the coast of Iceland, and how they’d incorporate the murder which takes place in Holy Trinity Church.
Movies have meant that my imagination has been tested before: beloved characters and storylines given face and shape. But a movie production has CGI, huge amounts of makeup and costume. A theatre production is so much more stripped back. And I was excited and concerned about how the vivid images in my head, even months after finishing the book, would be created on stage.
It was also a first time experience in the smaller stage area of Hull Truck, in the Studio. Initially this worried me even further, because I’d pictured it on the larger stage. We entered to a minimalistic office with a white desk, filing cabinets and chairs lined up on either side of the stage, items of costume hanging on their backs. There was a large projection scene above this, which I expected was where scenes such as Fred Stein’s murder at sea would be shown.
The storyline was altered, with key characters telling the story through Aector’s viewpoint mostly. The first murder given any mention was the church stabbing of Daphne Cotton. This unnerved me as I was already trying to piece bits together as I drew on memory to serve as a gap-filler.
I was also struggling quickly with the depiction of Aector McAvoy. Naturally, it’s no fault of actor Peter McMillan that he doesn’t look like the Aector of my imagination – this is the most common casualty of an adaptation, that your imagination is not the one in charge. It meant that for the first half, right up until minutes before the interval, I couldn’t quite focus on what I was actually watching. I was 50% watching what was unfolding on stage and 50% flipping through the pages of my memory.
But once I accepted the Aector McAvoy on stage and got my head around some of the plot movement, I found I was drawn into the performance in the same way as I was drawn into the book.
The visuals added depth and a reality to the murder scenes. Fire flicking across the stage as well as on the big screen, and scenes of the locations around Hull – so recognisable to this audience – built the tension and made the murder scenes real without being overperformed. Murder scenes can be so badly done on stage, but they kept it simple and this worked. The most poignant image from the novel are the eyes of the killer, which adorn some copies of the book, and which McAvoy repeatedly refers to. I was glad to see these depicted, the image cast onto the white desk at two points when they were most important.
For a small theatre group, the performance of this complex story was delivered very well indeed. My biggest issue with it all was within me.
You don’t need to have read the book to go and see the play. The woman sat next to me told me that her husband had written the title as “Dark Matter” on the calendar, so she was probably imagining something very different. But she was equally as enthusiastic as I was, chatting about it excitedly in the interval. And at the conclusion, the response was a resounding applause. People were chatting about it as we walked out into the night air.
I feel as though I’ve negative, when I really enjoyed the play and left feeling really positive. Where I struggled with stage-Aector, stage-Pharoah was very close to imagination-Pharoah. I was so glad to see the iconic blue eyes, tears about to fall, used as a visual and not just a mention in the storyline. The script did honour to the original story, staying true to all of the events of the novel.
Sometimes it’s difficult to watch something so vivid in your mind come to life through someone else’s eyes. But I was clapping as excitedly as anyone else in that room: other readers of David Mark, regular theatre goers, and those who were looking for something a bit different.