My life was turned into a romcom! How our arts writer became the lead character in a new play

Charlotte Higgins was thrilled that her history book about Roman Britain was being adapted for the stage – until she realised it was being reimagined – and she and her partner were the romantic leads

I have recently had to stop myself from watching one of my favourite films – Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, which dramatises a screenwriter’s struggle to turn Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief into a script. It is a clever, hilarious film about writer’s block, the crazy demands of Hollywood, and the traumas of transforming one kind of narrative into another. In the end the film – and thus the adaptation – becomes a kind of spoof thriller, with sex, crime, drugs and a character being eaten alive by an alligator.

The reason I can’t watch it just at the moment is that one of my books – Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain – has just been adapted by the brilliant Scottish playwright David Greig. It premieres this week at the Pitlochry Festival theatre in Perthshire. But it also turns out that I have been adapted. So has my partner, Matthew. As has, indeed, Matthew’s 1974 VW campervan. The last is “probably the only character that is accurately depicted”, Greig concedes.

The thing is: no one sane would read Under Another Sky and think: “This screams theatre.” It is a book about an encounter with Roman Britain; about how the idea of Roman Britain has resonated in British culture over the past several centuries. It is organised as a travelogue, in which occasionally a first-person narrator appears. A lot of the real-life travelling for the book was done with Matthew, in his campervan, back in 2010 and 2011; he and van are only very briefly mentioned. Much of the book, though, was produced out of reading, thinking, sighing and typing in the British Library. Not very dramatic.

David Greig.
David Greig. Photograph: Aly Wight

To transform my rather serious book into a play, then, Greig has turned it into a romcom (or Rome-com, as he insists on calling it). Its two characters are Charlotte and Matthew. They are classics nerds who, not in the first flush of youth, fall in love exploring Roman remains on a road trip. If I force myself into objectivity, I can tell you that the play is charming, funny and thought-provoking. It also occasionally makes my stomach flip as I consider the intimate details of our lives that I have willingly spilled to Greig, only to find them turning up in the script. The same goes for episodes he has half-invented or plain made up. For example: contrary to what many of our friends might imagine, Matthew and I do not generally talk in Latin with each other, still less as a means of seduction (I concede an occasional quotation might be traded, but only privately, and for comic effect). And I want to put it right here, for the attention of future employers, that the real me is actually excellent with deadlines. Let’s just say David may have inserted himself into some parts of the story.

The origins of this unlikely play go back to 2019, and the Edinburgh international book festival, where Greig (whom you may know from his joyous romance Midsummer, or for his book for the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or for The Events, about the aftermath of a mass shooting), two actors, two musicians and the director Elizabeth Newman created a scratch adaptation of the book in a miraculous four days, as part of the festival’s “playing with books” strand. “More of a sketch than a play,” in Greig’s words, it already involved the characters Charlotte and Matthew embarking on their adventure.

The book festival audience seemed to like it. I remember the author and former Guardian columnist Madeleine Bunting making an astute remark in the Q&A afterwards: you don’t often see, she said, a romantic relationship depicted between intellectual equals on stage – in which the characters talk about the things that interest them. What also sticks in my mind is a conversation I had with Greig. We’re interested in ancient history and prehistory (we love a hill fort, a Roman camp, an Orcadian neolithic tomb). But he, with apparent ease, can submerge himself imaginatively in the deep past, safe in his conviction that people love and strive and grieve pretty much as they have always done. Whereas I stand before history as if before an unknown country, longing to feel that I can truly know it, but convinced of the impossibility of so doing. Talking to David, I said: “Every time you imagine one version of events with conviction, you are killing off all the other possible realities.” And yet, of course, I do imagine: of course I feel moved and touched by, say, the letter found in the Roman camp at Vindolanda, Northumberland, from one officer’s wife to another, inviting her “beloved sister” to a birthday party.

Anyway: it was a fun, joyous experiment. But then, during 2020, two significant things happened, as far Under Another Sky goes. First, Newman, who runs Pitlochry Festival theatre, built an outdoor stage. Like an ancient Greek theatre, its seating hugs the natural contours of the hillside that rises above her main auditorium. With its view towards the River Tummel and Ben Vrackie, and set among enchanting gardens, it must be one of the most scenic stages in Britain.

Second, Greig wrote a delicate, intriguing play to go in it: Adventures With the Painted People, about the encounter between a Roman solider and a Pictish woman in Scotland. He has told me that the play came partly out of reading my book; in a way, its deep imagining of its characters is a kindly riposte to my scepticism. And after it was staged last summer, Newman suggested Greig work up Under Another Sky into a fully fledged play, to be performed in the same outdoor theatre.

So it is that in April this year, I find myself in a rehearsal room in the Scottish Highlands, with Greig, Newman and two immensely talented and committed actors, Amelia Donkor and Keith Macpherson, who are to play Charlotte and Matthew. My vanity is incredibly flattered by Donkor, who is clever, beautiful and, though this couldn’t be more trivial, noticeably more supple than I am. We are working from the 2019 script, and Greig is figuring out how to turn it into a finished drama.

When I arrive, the conversation is of road movies – or rather, what the opposite of a road movie might be. The play of Under Another Sky, though it taps into the genre of the road movie, will not, barring Adaptation-like levels of intervention, end Thelma-and-Louise style, with Matthew driving the campervan off a cliff in despair at Charlotte’s inability to produce a book, while her agent and editor threaten them with guns. So what kind of jeopardy will the play have? How much will it need? We discuss one of my favourite movies, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, in which the drama is held in the connection between its two main characters. We also go to see the performance space. It is a chilly spring day, and I try not to catastrophise about the possible weather conditions in Perthshire in August and September. “The rain here doesn’t tend to last for very long,” says Newman. Midge repellent, she tells the actors, will be provided if necessary. None of this is terribly reassuring.

Higgins (back) watches Macpherson and Donkor rehearse.
Higgins (back) watches Macpherson and Donkor rehearse. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

In June, Matthew and I attend a performance in London of another impossible project Greig is working on (the reconstruction of an entire lost Greek tragedy). Afterwards, over drinks on the pavement outside Southwark Playhouse, I tamp down feelings of panic as it dawns upon me that he has not yet finished his script for Under Another Sky. I find myself telling him the story of how Matthew and I met – a convoluted tale involving an academic seminar, experimental dance and a nightclub – that will later (oh God!) turn up in the play, albeit faintly garbled, I mean, fictionalised. As we talk, it dawns on me that “Charlotte” and “Matthew” are going to be at least as much “about” Greig himself as us. I even suggest he changes their names, which would give him more freedom to invent, and me less cause for queasiness – but he wants to draw on the specific and the real, he tells me.

On 21 July, I’m on holiday when Greig messages: can we have a chat? When we speak it seems there is finally a script, which, he gently informs me, has gone quite hard in a romcom direction, but if there’s anything that freaks me out, I’m to let him know and he’ll fix it. The next day I read it. It’s a slightly out-of-body experience. It begins in my flat. My agent, who for the purposes of the play has been transformed from bluff south London literary legend to fully Los Angelino corporate type, rings and harangues me about my deadline. Panicked and stuck (again I want to stress Greig himself admits this is essentially defamatory) I realise that the solution is to explore the stones themselves, the remains of Roman Britain. Perhaps my new lover, Matthew, can drive me in the campervan? And so it begins.

When I can peer out beyond my own self-consciousness, I think the play is really good. But I am worried what Matthew will say, and ask him to read it, too. He shuts himself in the study for an hour. Soon gales of laughter resound through the flat. Phew. I send Greig some annoying, pedantic notes about things such as the real opening times of Silchester Roman amphitheatre, weirdly consumed with anxiety lest English Heritage complain. Matthew and I correct some of the Latin that he has the characters (oh, God, no) talking with each other. I also beg him to change a deeply embarrassing bit where he has said that my first book was a bestseller (if only!) and, being vain, ask him to make it not sound like I dashed Under Another Sky off in a year, as the script currently implies. “I would prefer not to give the impression that my poor old book was that carelessly written,” I plead, pompously.

A week later, I’m in Pitlochry again, observing rehearsals. The place is transformed from April: it’s warm and sunny, the streets are full of people and the theatre’s summer season is in full swing. Every time the actors repeat a section, I can feel it inflating, lifting off the ground, a little more. Discretion forbids me to enquire whether Donkor has been watching me like a hawk and is playing my idiosyncrasies. I’d be the last person to realise if she had. Some cheeky friend emails and asks me if I fancy the actor playing Matthew. For heaven’s sake! Macpherson is a wonderful person and actor. But happily for the smooth running of this show and everyone’s sanity, the answer is no.

Outside, Donkor and Macpherson run through a section of the play set in the Roman amphitheatre in Silchester, Hampshire – another atmospheric circular stage ringed by trees. In this scene, Charlotte and Matthew are pretending to be gladiators. While there is a whole part of me inwardly screaming: “I would literally never pretend to be a gladiator,” of course it works wonderfully well. And, oddly enough, despite the fact that what the actors are doing is so different from what really happened, my memory takes me right back to the sultry day in June 2010 when, in real life, we visited that extraordinary spot.

As Macpherson and Donkor get to grips with more of the play, I see how, though filtered through Greig’s delightful, funny love story, it tackles what I had been obsessed with in the book: how we fill, from our own imaginations and prejudices, the gaps in our knowledge about the past. It also playfully asks how we connect with each other, despite the gaps in our understanding, despite all the obstacles in our way. I realise, too, that the characters Charlotte and Matthew are reconstructions from fragments, created by Greig from scraps and stories – just as we might imperfectly, but with empathy, build up an idea of people from the deep past. And that seems absolutely perfect.

Under Another Sky, by Charlotte Higgins, adapted by David Greig, is in rep at Pitlochry Festival theatre from 10 August to 23 September.


Charlotte Higgins

The GuardianTramp

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