New piece about journey to Roman Britain in a camper van heading to Pitlochry
TAKE a popular history book by author and journalist Charlotte Higgins, add the talents of acclaimed playwright David Greig (prolific author of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart and many other theatrical dramas).
Then put on the play in the beautiful little amphitheater in the gardens of the Pitlochry Festival Theater (PFT). Sounds like, doesn’t it, the perfect recipe for a great evening in the hills of Highland Perthshire? Greig hopes so. His new play, Under Another Sky, shares its title with Higgins’ book on Roman Britain. It originated in an experimental project at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2019.
The playwright took part in the Festival’s program entitled Playing With Books. “We would throw a playwright, a director, actors and a musician in a room with a book, for four days,” Greig recalls. “We would have a screening at the end, with the author of the book on stage, answering [to the performance]. “Play” was the central word there.
Three years ago, Greig was the playwright in the play while Higgins’ volume was the book in question. “I just thought it would be fun to meet Charlotte properly. I knew her a little, but I wanted to meet her properly, ”admits the playwright. “I also thought it might be fun to try and do an adaptation of a non-fiction book.” The thrill of approaching Higgins’ story from a dramatic perspective took on another dimension when Greig discovered there was a 21st-century human-interest story to add to the consideration of Romans in Great Britain. Brittany.
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“I was talking to Charlotte,” Greig recalls, “and realized that the story of the book’s writing had a story. Charlotte and her partner, Matthew Fox, who is a professor of classics at the University of Glasgow, had been in a campervan to Britain one summer, traveling to all those [Roman] sites.
“Then I heard from Charlotte that it was their first summer together, that’s how they met.” The couple “didn’t really know each other” before their trip to Britain and back.
Greig created his impromptu piece for the Book Festival in 2019 based on Higgins’ book and the journey behind it. That, he thought, was it. However, it was without counting on the creative dynamo that is Elizabeth Newman, artistic director of the Pitlochry Festival Theatre. It was she who suggested Greig consider turning his earlier Higgins project into a full-fledged play. Amid the pandemic, when outdoor performances became a Covid-defying option for live theater, Newman oversaw the construction of a beautiful little amphitheater in PFT’s beautiful gardens. Greig has worked in the amphitheater before. His drama Adventures With the Painted People, set during the period of Roman settlement in Caledonia, played there in June last year.
Newman didn’t have to wring his arm too hard to persuade the playwright to revisit his dramatization of the origins of Higgins’ book. Working on the play for PFT brought the question of the relationship between drama and non-fiction to the fore.
In fact, says Greig, his play is such a liberal adaptation of Higgins’ book that “there are more quotes from Roger JA Wilson’s Guide to Roman Ruins in Britain” than from Under Another Sky itself. It may seem “a bit cheeky”, admits the playwright.
However, in his defense, he points out that his drama is not so much an adaptation of Higgins’ book as an “imagining of a story that could lead to a book”. Which brings us neatly to the drama’s relationship to reality and fiction. The characters in the play are, Greig explains, amalgamations of the real Higgins and Fox, on the one hand, and the playwright himself, on the other.
“At the moment, they are called Charlotte and Matthew,” he says, “and they have characteristics in common with Charlotte and Matthew.” However, other characteristics attributed to Charlotte – such as missing deadlines – belong much more to Greig than to the hardworking reporter Higgins.
“I hesitate to say it’s a romantic comedy,” says the playwright, “but it’s a story of friendship and intellectual camaraderie.”
There is, Greig acknowledges, a creative tension in his piece regarding the representation of history. Higgins’ book aims to give a coherent and factual framework to the history of the Romans in Britain.
In contrast, Greig, as a creator of scenic fiction, is inevitably engaged in an imaginative leap into the past. The playwright recalls an exchange about it between Higgins and himself at the Book Festival event in 2019.
“I said I had recently walked on an old Roman road,” Greig recalls. “And I said I couldn’t help but imagine [fictional Romans] Marcus and Sextus pushing a cart to the nearby fort.
“I imagined what they might have looked like and where they might have come from.”
Higgins had none of that.
“She said ‘you can’t do that… When you try to imagine these people from 2,000 years ago, you can’t imagine what they had in mind.
“[Higgins argued] ‘every time you try to imagine a [an ancient Roman] you cancel all other possibilities”. She said, ‘that’s why you have to look at the stones, that’s the only thing you can rely on.’ »
A playwright fascinated by history, Greig admits to being “refractory” to this idea. Well, he could be, given that the very nature of his craft is to create characters that, in essence, obliterate other possible characters. Greig says the “intellectual backbone” of his piece is the question, “what are we trying to find when we look to the past?” This is no small feat, by the playwright’s own admission. However, despite his intellectual bent, Greig is keen to emphasize that his play has an entertaining and light-hearted dimension. It is, he says, “intended for a summer audience”.
Under Another Sky takes place at the Pitlochry Festival Theatre, on various dates between August 10 and September 23: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com