How to dramatise a text that is part travelogue, part exploration of responses to the almost 400-year-long Roman occupation of Britain? Scottish playwright David Greig follows the example of some of the mythographers, historians, archaeologists, poets and musicians cited by the book’s author, Charlotte Higgins: he plugs wide gaps between facts with imaginative projections.
In Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, Higgins mentions in passing that on her research trips to sites around the UK, she was sometimes driven by her boyfriend, Matthew, in his battered VW camper van. Greig makes this scant piece of information the basis for a road trip romcom featuring highly fictionalised versions of the real people – as Higgins makes clear in an article about the play written for our sister paper the Guardian, of which she is chief culture critic.
The initial effect is charming. Pitlochry’s outdoor amphitheatre, surrounded by trees, is appropriately atmospheric. Director and designer Elizabeth Newman’s staging is playful: the actors transform bed and bookcase into the rickety van that also doubles as Boudicca’s chariot (“I’ll just nip to Halfords to get swords for the wheels,” says Matthew). Amelia Donkor’s Charlotte and Keith Macpherson’s Matthew are both engaging as they mimic gladiators, encounter a contemporary Roman soldier who teaches today’s children ancient battle techniques, learn from a builder how he recreated an ancient mosaic and so on.
As the action progresses, though, no drama develops; nothing is at stake. We know from the start that Charlotte’s book will be finished and published; the relationship between her and Matthew is almost always amiable. True, a disagreement over Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas is followed by a parting of the ways, but the separation is geographical rather than emotional, as classicist Matthew takes up his new professorial post at the University of Glasgow. Like Matthew’s VW van, the two-hander, if not entirely fit for purpose, does move.