Local links and tale of obsession: Paul Opacic on bringing Ruth Rendell’s Gallowglass to Norwich

Florence Cady and Paul Opacic in Gallowglass

Florence Cady and Paul Opacic in Gallowglass - Credit: Debbie Borthwick

An atmospheric twisted tale of obsession set in Suffolk, Ruth Rendell's Gallowglass has been adapted into a play for the first time. TV actor and cast member Paul Opacic tells us about transferring it to the stage ahead of its run in Norwich.

Paul Opacic and Eva Sayer in Gallowglass

Paul Opacic and Eva Sayer in Gallowglass - Credit: Debbie Borthwick

An atmospheric thriller set in Suffolk from the pen of Ruth Rendall is coming to the region's stage with settings that will give the story extra significance for local audiences.

Gallowglass, which the author wrote under the name of Barbara Vine, has been adapted by Middle Ground Theatre Company who earlier this year brought A Murder Is Announced to the region and who this year are celebrating their 30th anniversary.

Rendell once lived in Polstead, and in 1997 was created Baroness Rendell of Babergh in the County of Suffolk. Suffolk features in many of her novels. Orford and Aldeburgh were part of No Night is Too Long, Polstead and Nayland feature in A Fatal Inversion and Bury St Edmunds and its surroundings are setting for The Brimstone Wedding.

Gallowglass is set in Sudbury and also contains references to Norwich, Lavenham, Walberswick and Southwold. Turned into a BBC series in 1993 starring Michael Sheen and Paul Rhys, it tells is an emotional story of obsessive love and fear. Joe is saved from committing suicide in front of an oncoming tube train by Sandor who, in return for saving his life, demands his absolute loyalty and teaches Joe that he is now a 'gallowglass', a servant of a chief.

Dean Smith and Joe Eyre in Gallowglass

Dean Smith and Joe Eyre in Gallowglass - Credit: Debbie Borthwick

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Sandor tells Joe a fairytale of an ageing prince, a kidnapped princess, a missed rendezvous, and so deep is Joe's gratitude that he helps with the kidnapping of a young married woman, Nina, who Sandor is obsessed with.

The Middle Ground production, adapted by Margaret May Hobbs, is the first time it has been transferred to the stage. It stars a host a familiar faces from TV including Richard Walsh, Karen Drury, Dean Smith, Florence Cady and Rachael Hart who plays Katie in CBeebies Apple Tree House and is herself from Suffolk.

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Paul Opacic, best known for his roles as Carl Costello in Hollyoaks and Steve Marchant in Emmerdale, plays Paul Garnett.

Florence Cady and Paul Opacic in Gallowglass

Florence Cady and Paul Opacic in Gallowglass - Credit: Debbie Borthwick

Ruth Rendell's book offers a strange story. What was it about Gallowglass that particularly appealed to you?

It is very unusual. It is primarily a story of one man's obsession and the lengths that he will go to fulfil that obsession and the consequences on the people around him. What is fascinating about this is that everybody in the story in psychologically damaged in some way. All the stories intertwine and there is obsession, kidnap and a love story all in there. It also has humour, both belly laugh humour and very dark humour. It was only when we got the script for the first time, which is brilliant adaptation by Margaret May Hobbs, that it really lifted off the page and I thought this is something special. I think it is one of the best things Mike [Lunney, Middle Ground artistic director and producer] has done and one of the best things I've been in.

What can you tell us about your character Paul Garnett?

Rachael Hart and Joe Eyre in Gallowglass

Rachael Hart and Joe Eyre in Gallowglass - Credit: Debbie Borthwick

There are lots of layers to Paul Garnett. He was in the armed forces but became a teacher and is now a single dad looking after his child. He is damaged because he has been though a messy divorce which has knocked him sideways and he had a career as an English teacher but was hit by one of his pupils and for the first time in his life didn't know what to do. But there is more to him than there first appears. It's a nice character to play as he's as hard as nails but educated and sensitive.

The story is more than a standard whodunit?

lot of thriller writers can easily be dismissed as holiday reading but I think with Ruth Rendall's writing, particularly in this case, there are so many layers to it. This adaptation really brings it to life. The TV adaptation was good with Michael Sheen and Paul Rhys, but seeing it live adds an extra element. The book and TV version tell the story in flashback but our version is very much set in the present. Sandor is telling you what has happened and why he is doing what he is doing. That means you have the raw emotion of what people's journey is right in front of your eyes.


Ruth Rendell lived in Suffolk and Gallowglass is set in the region. Will local audiences still get a sense of place?

Very much so I think. It is set in Suffolk and there are references to places people will recognise. And one of our cast members, Rachael Hart, is from Ipswich so she has been telling us all about it. We have actually used locations in Suffolk too, images of which you see projected as backdrops. It is very authentic in that sense and will have an extra relevance when we are in Norwich that perhaps it doesn't have elsewhere. People will know the names and recognise some of the imagery.

Richard Walsh and Matthew Wellman in Gallowglass

Richard Walsh and Matthew Wellman in Gallowglass - Credit: Debbie Borthwick

Middle Ground is in its 30th anniversary year. You have worked with them before. What is the secret of their success?

I worked with them a couple of years ago in a play called The Business of Murder, a very heavy, scary psychological drama which was a huge success, so it nice to be asked back. It is a great company to work for. The way Michael Lunney runs it is to get a team around him that he is comfortable with, people who he can trust, who will work hard and get on with the job. That is certainly the case on this production. There are about 16 people involved, cast and crew, and it is one big happy family.

They tend to use the same actors. Is it like a repertory company in that sense?

Paul Opacic and Eva Sayer in Gallowglass

Paul Opacic and Eva Sayer in Gallowglass - Credit: Debbie Borthwick

Very much so. Richard Walsh has been with Middle Ground for the last 15 or 16 years, on and off directing or starring. Dean Smith has been in three productions. There is a constant turn over of familiar faces who are all friends of the company. Mike gets you back when he finds a role that is suitable for you. Being part of an ensemble is very much something I enjoy.

You are no stranger to Norwich having filmed here in the past?

People in Norwich will probably know me more from various dodgy nights in the nightclubs than they do from TV. I remember a particular night with Iwan Roberts and Andy Marshall back in the late 1990s. I spent time there when I worked on The Chief [ITV series starring Martin Shaw and Tim Pigott-Smith, set in the fictitious 'Eastland Constabulary'] and I enjoyed it. When I was in Emmerdale I popped back down to do a few charity things. I love it.

Dean Smith and Rachael Hart in Gallowglass

Dean Smith and Rachael Hart in Gallowglass - Credit: Debbie Borthwick

• Gallowglass is at Norwich Theatre Royal from February 20-24, 7.30pm, 2.30pm Feb 22/24, £26.50-£8, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

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