DAVID Greig is a man who rises to a challenge as an out-of-work theater film takes the spotlight.
Any playwright who has adapted challenging works like The Bacchae or Touching the Void or even Local Hero for the stage is a person who lives to defy expectations – and perhaps even their own sense of what is possible.
But Edinburgh-born writer Under Another Sky’s latest adaptation proposes a challenge of unimaginable heights. How would you reinterpret a book about Britain’s 400 years as a Roman province – part archaeological study and part understanding of how our past was remembered – as a play?
How could Charlotte Higgins’ book, which analyzes artifacts, architecture and “the sleeping earth’s ability to create anomalies” be transformed into 90 minutes of theatrical entertainment?
As it turns out, the answer lay in the phrase “The Blue Van.”
David Greig smiles as he rewinds how the seemingly impossible project became possible. And he admits that the leap from print to the stage was neither obvious nor intentional. “I really enjoyed the book,” he enthuses. “I’m very interested in that period, but I didn’t think of it as a play at all. But then the Lyceum Theater had an idea that in a week we would do short adaptations of a book and present them to a book festival audience.
“So I thought it would be fun to try to adapt the book, really just as an experiment, certainly not to go ahead and develop it as a play. It was just an idea of how to present ideas about history.”
The adaptation worked great. But then David Grieg caught a tiny piece of information that sent the playwright’s imagination into overdrive. “When I met Charlotte in Edinburgh, she told me that while she was researching the book, she had spent two summers in a blue camper van with Matthew, her now partner, who is a professor of Classics at Glasgow University.”
The idea of making Under a Different Sky a play suddenly caught on. “I thought, ‘Ah, this might be the way to tell a story, not an adaptation of the book, but sort of an adaptation of the process of writing the book.'”
In the play, the audience is taken on two journeys, the first in which two characters explore, uncover and discuss the implications of Roman Britain, and the second, the developing romance. “Yeah, it’s kind of a road movie. And at the same time, I wanted to explore this notion of intellectual friendship, which I haven’t seen too often in popular culture, where people find their togetherness through thoughts and ideas.”
He laughs; “Typically, road movies rely on chase scenes and big adventures, but what we have here is a seemingly boring subject. What Charlotte has done is make a name for herself by figuring out things that might be considered boring but manage to make her sexy. On the surface it’s so easy; just two people traveling through the ruins of roman britain. But underneath is a story about how we find each other, what connects us and how we relate to the past.”
The play is very much about imagination. Can we really connect to someone in the past? What does a ruin mean to us? Greig enjoyed exploring these topics. And it’s a guarantee that the author of movies like Midsummer or the book by West End hit Charlie and The Chocolate Factory will make sure it’s funny.
Unsurprisingly, Charlotte Higgins was thrilled when David Greig revealed he planned to adapt her book into a play. “I’m a huge admirer of David’s pieces and I realized I’ve loved so much of his work over the years like Yellow Moon and Solaris and it was a huge surprise that he chose this.”
She laughs: “No one would pick up my book Under Another Sky and think that this is a natural adaptation into drama. It’s quite a serious work on how Roman Britain interfered with our notions of national identity.”
Nevertheless, the book is structured like a travelogue. Higgins’ determined pursuit of architecture and artifacts leads her to set off across fields, council estates and garden centers and then in the blue RV to the next treasure trove. On the way we are spoiled with historical reports, analogies and anecdotes. Much poetic overview. And discussions like ‘Why was Hadrian’s Wall built?’ considering it was too long to hold back those determined to scale it.
“Yes, but I don’t often appear in the first person. I only appear to give the reader a clue that my reaction to the ancient past is as subjective and time-bound as people were in the 18th and 19th centuries. (It incorporates thoughts from medieval mythographer and historian Geoffrey of Monmouth through to Edward Elgar and WH Auden.) And now, to make this a road trip piece was a surprise.”
But was there a little trepidation mixed with excitement when you realized you were going to be in a play telling the story of your new relationship?
“Absolutely,” she says with a smile. “There was a slight turning of the stomach. I knew David’s work well, I trusted him. But after reading the script, it was a special experience to see me and my partner perform. But at the same time, David has fictionalized us to explore some of the ideas in the book, and it’s a vehicle that allows us to ask questions about the deep past, about how people can visit ancient sites and have very different thoughts about them You.” She smiles; “There’s as much of David in the characters as there is of me and Matthew.”
Higgins goes a little deeper into the author’s intention. “David can see himself in other people’s shoes. But as a non-fiction writer, I think there are serious limits to how one can imagine, for example, the thoughts of a Roman soldier based on the Antonine Wall in the 140s AD. We’ve talked about it, and in a way I can envy his light-hearted ability to jump while I’m standing on the sidelines and thinking, ‘No, if I jump, I might jump wrong.’”
But is the essence of Charlotte and Matthew’s conversations true? “There were flashes of truth,” she says, laughing. “But what happened is that David essentially created a new mold. He dramatized the journey of writing the book, gathering the research, and turning it into this beautiful, almost romantic adventure, and it’s absolutely enchanting.”
she grins; “It’s a road movie, but we’re not Thelma and Louise. We don’t drive a car off a cliff. We’re still here to tell the story.”
Did Matthew read it? “Yes, and I was a bit worried about his reaction, although I’m not sure why. But all I could hear was laughter from the basement where he was reading.”
Charlotte Higgins has been The Guardian’s Chief Culture Writer for several years and is a multi-award-winning author of serious historical works such as Greek Myths: A New Retelling,
Now she’s a romcom star? “Well, this is all one big adventure,” she says, grinning. “And I have to say that Amelia (Donkor) and Keith (Macpherson), the actors playing our characters, are amazing and will be very different from the blushing, rather awkward Charlotte and Matthew who will be in the audience on opening night.” ”
David Grieg once explained; “But the writing itself is killing me. Every new game feels like it’s my last. For some reason I can’t write without feeling like this is it. I’ve been found out.’ Yet he accepts the difficult challenges, such as turning a book about Roman Britain’s impact on the mind into a play? “Yes,” he laughs. “But it’s such a great story that it had to be made. And at least the audience will be able to enjoy the best view of any theater space in Scotland.”
Under Another Sky, Pitlochry Festival Theater Amphitheatre, 10 August – 23 September.