The Old Vic
7 February 2018
Pretty much universally slated upon its premiere at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, it was interesting to see how Alan Ayckbourn’s dystopian drama would be received after a serious pruning. After starting life as a two parter spanning six hours, The Divide has been trimmed to a sprightly three hours 50. But it’s still way too long, and when things start to drag during both of the one hour 40 acts, they really drag.
It’s not all bad though. This is a stunningly designed show and an absolute masterclass in stagecraft. David Plater’s lights and Ash J Woodward’s video are used to wonderful effect, particularly in the scenes set at a waterfall. Screens and projection fly in and out, and a staircase slicing the stage in two makes for a striking image. An excellent choir and musicians provide gorgeous live accompaniment. And then there’s the plot.
100 years into the future, a plague has ravaged humanity. As time goes on, women have become carriers of the mysterious virus, whilst men are still susceptible. The solution is to split the population by gender and quite literally divide them; the ‘pure’ men wear white and live in the north, whilst the infected women wear black and live in the south (It’s all very UK-centric and there’s no mention of this happening anywhere else). A smart framing device sets up The Divide as a talk from the older version of protagonist Soween. She’s turned a past tragedy into a best selling book and is here to speak to the audience about it. This quickly slips into a narrative taken over by a younger Soween (the great Erin Doherty), and consists of school reports, diary entries, meeting minutes, court records and emails. We learn about Soween’s brother Elihu and the love they both have for classmate Giella, whose forbidden heterosexual love with Elihu threatens to destroy their society.
So far, so interesting, although Giella and Elihu’s love story smacks a little too much of Romeo and Juliet. There’s no mention of what happens to those who don’t fit into the strict gender binary of the world of the play either, which feels like a missed storytelling opportunity.
Whilst he’s captured the awkward naivety of Soween’s childhood and teenage voice well, other elements of Ayckbourn’s script are less convincing. The dialogue relies too heavily and lazily on gender stereotypes, with the idea that something is ‘typical of men/women’ is amusing. There are some genuinely funny bits, especially when Soween and Elihu are children, but these rather pale in comparison to the writer using a sexual assault joke for cheap laughs. Two hours of material cut, and that stayed in?
That’s another thing – whilst I’m grateful that the original running time has been severely slashed, the cuts in the storyline are obvious, particularly in act 2. Ayckbourn obviously intended some wider conspiracy with ominous higher power ‘the Preacher’ but this thread is randomly abandoned half way through the second act and never visited again.
Honestly, this cast are too good for this. With Jake Davies as Elihu, Finty Williams as Soween’s mother, Thusitha Jayasundera as her stern father-figure equivalent ‘MaPa’ and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Giella’s free spirit mother, this is an immensely talented ensemble. And of course there’s Erin Doherty. After being a surprise highlight of the Old Vic’s Christmas Carol she once again proves herself as a winning performer. As Soween she’s full of warmth and effortless humour, taking on gargantuan reams of script with impeccable ability. She convinces at every stage from eight to fourteen years old and you root for her from the get go.
But The Divide is a play that can’t decide what genre it wants to be. The initial setup presents a dystopian sci-fi world, but Ayckbourn simply can’t resist injecting his trademark comedy of manners dialogue into proceedings. These two elements never really fit together and make too much light of some dark situations. But after a long slog and a lot of tragedy, there’s hope on the horizon for Soween and co, and we end on a lovely image of unity, solidarity and peace.
Except we don’t. Because the play then continues for another 20 unnecessary minutes with a trite and contrived epilogue ending that successfully manages to taint the rest of the play. Things return to what a 2018 audience would recognise as ‘normal’ within the space of a mere three years, and the fact that the plague that started the whole thing now no longer exists is never fully explained. Freed of their single gender society, the previously ‘prudish’ women go sex-mad around the newly met men and are immediately, wince-inducingly slut-shamed for it. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The men aren’t subject to the same derision because of course they’re not.
Soween, after repeatedly saying that she wants nothing to do with men, is inexplicably paired off with her brother’s dull friend (Martin Quinn, doing his best in an utterly thankless role), whose sole trait is that he’s persistent – giving fuel to the gross myth that women are only really playing hard to get and if you ask them out enough times eventually they’ll relent! It feels like Soween has been cheated somehow; after losing both of the women she longed after for her entire youth she’s lumbered with this bozo. The implication that she ends up with a man because everyone else does and her sexuality is changeable in an instant does not sit comfortably whatever way you look at it.
Even after the cuts and despite the top quality nature of every other production element, The Divide, with its patchy and problematic script is still not ready for public consumption.
My verdict? Lovely tech, shame about the ending.