Friday, 2 February 2018

Theatre review: The Divide

PREVIEW DISCLAIMER: A combination of major changes since the play was premiered last year, and this London run being very short, means The Divide is in the unusual situation of its entire Old Vic run being technically classed as previews.

Alan Ayckbourn's latest play is certainly ambitious, something that's given it a chequered history at the Old Vic even before it arrived there: The Divide premiered at last year's Edinburgh Festival as a two-part event along the lines of Angels in America or Harry Potter, and went on sale in London as two parts as well. But the unimpressed reception it received in August meant that, in the months before it resurfaced, Annabel Bolton's production underwent major changes, notably cutting two of its six hours, now fitting into one (very long) performance. One of Ayckbourn's occasional moves away from comedies of manners towards science fiction, the play has the feel of a dystopian YA novel, albeit one very low on action. The Divide takes place at some point in the future, the world having undergone an apocalyptic event that's reset the calendars - we're now over a hundred years AP, or "After Plague."

The plague in question was one that killed only adult men, but only adult women were carriers, so it was contact between the sexes that was deadly. It wiped out most of the male population, and a civil war killed many of the women, so the survivors now live on either side of the Divide in single-sex communities; any visitor across the Divide must wear a full face mask to avoid contamination. The play takes place almost entirely on the South side, in the women's village that resembles a 17th century religious community (there are certainly visual nods to The Crucible, something I don't necessarily want reminding of in this particular theatre.)

Women pair up to raise families but their marriages are modelled on very old-fashioned heterosexual ones - the woman who bears the child (by artificial insemination) is, like Finty Williams' Chayza, known as MaMa, the homemaker; her partner Kest (Thusitha Jayasundera) is MaPa, the breadwinner and disciplinarian. Chayza and Kest have two children, the older boy Elihu (Jake Davies) and younger girl Soween (Erin Doherty.) When he turns 18 and is considered vulnerable to infection Elihu will have to move permanently to the North, but in the meantime he can live with his family. Soween, generally victimised by everyone at school, finds a new friend in Giella (Weruche Opia,) and believes she may have found her future partner; in fact Giella is interested in Soween's brother and, having been raised by radical parents who believe they're being lied to to keep women subjugated, starts a physical relationship with him.

Since the story is bookended by an older Soween (Buffy Davis) telling the story to a post-Divide audience, we know the relationship will in some way be the catalyst for breaking down the status quo, and instead of really having a strong story to tell (the Elihu/Giella relationship only begins at the interval break, so presumably the end of the entire first play in its earlier incarnation,) Ayckbourn is really engaging in a world-building exercise. Despite the same-sex-only relationships, this isn't a serious version of Zanna Don't!'s all-gay universe - it's implied the women's marriages are meant to be sexless, as seen by Soween's shock at discovering Giella's hippie parents (Lucy Briggs-Owen and Clare Lawrence Moody) actually have a physical relationship.

It's really only the women's side of the divide we get a clear picture of - apart from a few scenes near the end in a very specific part of the men's town, all we know about it comes from Rudgrin (Richard Katz,) who comes over to tutor Elihu in preparation for him moving North. Rudgrin's an interesting character whose apparent religious fervour gives way to something a bit more revolutionary as he learns to trust his charge more, and whose depression reveals the other side of the Divide (it's described as a violent place filled with gangs, built on preconceptions of what masculine traits should be,) not to be much better than the South.

The Divide is really quite an odd piece; I can't say I disliked it, and a running time I'd been dreading passed comparatively quickly, but it still feels leisurely at 4 hours, so I can see why it would have been so critically panned at 6. It may be part of the heavy cutting but I was left with a lot more questions about this future than there should have been after spending so much time there, whereas the edit has left in a big chunk I would have happily seen ditched: In a case of Multiple Ending Syndrome, Ayckbourn's until-then feminist piece goes a bit Love Actually, as after the reunion of the sexes Fergo (Martin Quinn) wins Soween's heart, apparently by persistently pursuing a woman who's clearly not interested (if this is Ayckbourn-does-The Hunger Games, it's the bit at the end where the author crowbars in a romance they're clearly not that invested in themselves.) This also has the unfortunate side-effect of a play that until then has included an obvious metaphor about love being love regardless of gender, seemingly eradicating all gay characters as soon as heterosexuality becomes possible again (while the same-sex partnerships have been promoted by this world's religion to avoid actual sex, Soween herself has always been shown as genuinely attracted to other girls.)

The blurb describing The Divide as "written not as a play but as a ‘narrative for voices’" also suggests a problem Bolton is fighting against - this does indeed feel like an extended radio play where we're told rather than shown the story, and the director does well to get any kind of visual life out of it: One major element of this is the incorporation of a community choir that occasionally becomes visible behind the action, adding much of the atmosphere that's essential if it's going to work at all. And in the end this does work, if only in part, a lot of which has to come down to the cast and particularly Doherty, who has to carry most of the narration, essentially telling someone else's story while vividly bringing her own character to life as well. And while Ayckbourn may drop the ball at the end and muddle up his own message, it feels well-timed when Big Brother has people justifying Ann Widdecombe's homophobia on the basis of her age, to see the 78-year-old Ayckbourn dedicate four hours to the idea that everyone should be allowed to love whoever the fuck they want.

The Divide by Alan Ayckbourn is booking until the 10th of February at the Old Vic.

Running time: 3 hours 55 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Marnie.

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