The Real Catriona King
The crime author and founder of Studio Theatre Company on their mysterious forthcoming production at The MAC
‘I was determined I didn’t want anything that was about the Troubles. It’s about time we moved on, frankly, in my opinion. It’s about time we looked forward.’ Catriona King is talking about the four novels so far published in her DCI Craig series, set in Belfast, her native city.
‘I say that not with any disrespect to the victims of the Troubles,’ she adds carefully. ‘But while helping the victims you can still accept that Northern Ireland is now a modern European country. We’re seeing that in patches – MTV and City of Culture, for instance – but we’re not seeing as much of it in the arts as I’d like to see.’
So while all four DCI Craig novels refer to specific places in Belfast – Deane’s, The MAC, Parliament Buildings, and Love & Death Inc. are among locations mentioned – the criminal activity and intrigue depicted in them could happen in any European metropolis, and are in no way yoked to narrow political or geographical parameters. ‘The characters’ religion, if they have any, is never disclosed,’ King adds pointedly.
King wasn’t always a writer. Coming from a scientifically-minded family ('My brothers are all doctors of atomic molecular physics, all three of them'), she naturally gravitated towards the sciences herself, and spent 15 years working in England as a GP, in health consultancy and lecturing.
It was a major life event that shook the established patterns of her professional existence to their foundations, causing long-buried instincts and inclinations to break through the surface.
‘My mother wasn’t well,’ King explains, ‘so I came back here and took some time out. Obviously I was with her a lot of the time, but I also had a lot of downtime.’ And in the downtime, King found herself thinking about writing. It was a sudden development, she says, but not totally surprising.
‘I won my first writing prize at school when I was ten,’ she remembers. ‘I loved English at school, I absolutely adored English literature and poetry. And through my career I wrote as a medical journalist. So it was always there.’
What was initially surprising, however, was what King found pouring out of her imagination when she finally put pen to paper. ‘If somebody had said to me ten years ago, “You’re going to be writing crime novels”, I’d have gone, “Absolutely not!”’
On reflection, though, King can see where the penchant for writing about criminality originated. ‘As a GP I did the forensic medical examiner’s training in London,’ she adds, ‘and I did a bit of work with the police. And I’d always loved crime novels, particularly the Ian Rankin novels, partly because you could learn about a city (Edinburgh) by reading them.’
Those influences combined three years ago to produce the character of Marc Craig, a kind of Belfast Rebus whose fictional headquarters is located in Sailortown, where King’s mother’s family once ran an import business. King is currently completing the fifth volume of DCI Craig’s exploits in the ‘Belfast’s Modern Thriller’ series for Crooked Cat Publishing.
Crime writing, time-consuming as it is, has far from exhausted the creative energies released since King’s return to Northern Ireland. She has also, it transpires, established a brand-new theatre company to keep herself busy. Despite training as a classical singer and an involvement with amateur theatrics in London, King has no ambition to tread the boards seriously.
‘What I do like,’ she says, ‘is project managing, putting it all together, getting everything in shape. There are a lot of companies in Belfast who advertise auditions, but I think it’s hard sometimes for completely new actors to break into that. So I just thought, why not try to set up another little company?’
She did: it was King’s vision and dynamism that brought the Studio Theatre Company’s inaugural production, Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, to The MAC in April 2013. Now there’s a follow-up, a new play entitled The Real Man, by an anonymous author operating under the nom de plume of Zeitgenossen (‘Contemporaries’ in German).
Why the secrecy, I wonder? ‘The writer has very deliberately chosen to remain anonymous,’ King responds. ‘In some ways because it gives freedom to what they want to say, because they may say things that are potentially contentious.’
The Real Man is set in a police force which, says King, ‘could be anywhere’, though there are unmistakable Belfast resonances. ‘The issues in the play are universal,’ she continues. ‘It happens over a period of six or seven hours, and it follows a man who has a lot of troubles in his life, and makes them worse.
‘His life is basically a bit of a mess, but he’s a high-functioning mess. He’s a police superintendent, and seems very successful. But various events happen in the station, in his life and in his marriage, and you see very different sides of him. And I suppose the title is a reference to which of these is the real man?’
King, who directs The Real Man as she did Lady Windermere, is particularly excited about the new talent that the Studio Theatre Company is unearthing locally. ‘We have a lot of people who haven’t acted before, and are astounding,’ she enthuses. ‘We also have people who are semi-professional and professional. It’s good to get that mix.’
As The Real Man demonstrates, King has a strong commitment to new Northern Irish writing, and sees her company staging more of it in the future. ‘I don’t think there’s quite enough new writing here,’ she comments. ‘If people come forward with a new play, we’ll definitely do a reading of it in the company and see what we think of it.’
And what would King, averse as she is to explicitly Troubles-related pieces, like to see budding local playwrights write about?
‘Look at life around you in 2013,’ is her challenge. ‘Not just one aspect of it. If you want to write about Northern Ireland there are all sorts of different issues – the financial crisis, equality issues, immigration, hate crime. We don’t really deal with them. Why are we not writing about different things here?’
The Real Man runs in The MAC, Belfast, from June 20 – 22.