There can’t be many plays in which the emotional turning point is an argument over Henry Purcell’s Dido’s Lament. But then there can’t be many plays inspired by a Romans-in-Britain travelogue by the Guardian’s chief culture writer.
Unlikely though it might seem, David Greig’s two-hander is a free adaptation of the 2013 book by Charlotte Higgins in which the journalist visits sites of Roman occupation, ranging from vague undulations in farmers’ fields to mighty defences still standing after two millennia. Higgins contends that these islands can only have been shaped by a regime that lasted 400 years – as long from today as the age of Shakespeare – and yet we have little cultural understanding of what the influence was.
Like the book, Greig’s play is a thoughtful odyssey around the country to destinations both familiar (Deal, Hadrian’s Wall, York) and obscure (Silchester, Woodchester, Pevensey). His key to adapting an essentially undramatic book is to make Higgins and her partner Matthew the protagonists in a romantic comedy in which a writer races against a publisher’s deadline in the company of a professor of Roman poetry whom she scarcely knows.
The argument over Purcell’s opera exemplifies their contrasting attitudes. Keith Macpherson’s Matthew, carefree and up for the ride, is romantically swept away by the tale of Dido and Aeneas setting off into the wild together, like two lovers in a camper van. Amelia Donkor’s Charlotte, flustered by the publisher, focused on the task, has a feminist reading of the Virgil original and thinks it to be anything from coercive to sentimental.
The heart-and-head tension underscores a sweet-natured play in which two relative strangers try to fill in the gaps that appear in the fragments of Latin text handed down to us. Director Elizabeth Newman makes adventurous use of the wooded amphitheatre stage, as Donkor and Macpherson discover stone tablets in the lighting box and nestle between audience members to take in the view. Like the book itself, the play is gentle and meandering, less a straight Roman road than a circuitous route around an unknowable past and a scarcely more knowable present.
At Pitlochry Festival theatre until 23 September