The Old Vic
Reviewed – 9th February 2018
“Ayckbourn side-steps the familiarity of the bitter-sweet, domestic comedy and offers a futuristic, dystopian fantasy”
A century from now. Sarum, south of the Divide. Post-plague. In the aftermath of a fatal disease which has wiped out most of the male population and consequently blamed on women, the two sexes live geographically separated; men dress in pure white and women in sinful black; homosexual relationships are the norm and heterosexuality is prohibited. Alan Ayckbourn side-steps the familiarity of the bitter-sweet, domestic comedy and offers a futuristic, dystopian fantasy. Its reception by those expecting a new experimental play has to some extent ignored its history. It was conceived as a piece of prose which could also be performed as a narrative for voice, first presented in Scarborough (2015) as an innovative five-part, day-long reading, whereas this lavish and detailed production is an adaptation by Baylis Director at The Old Vic, Annabel Bolton.
The Divide is turned from prose to drama using an array of techniques. Laura Hopkins’ versatile, gauze-layered set uses platforms and sliding panels which give a sense of expanded space and is embellished with intricate projections, including hand-written manuscript, and imaginative and meticulous lighting (David Plater and Ash J Woodward). Immaculate Amish-inspired costumes are beautifully devised, adjusting from the initial monochrome as the story progresses and original music by Christopher Nightingale is performed onstage by musicians and choir, all building up a sense of grandeur and expectation. Yet the author’s intended lightness of the tone is signalled with humour from the start. Taken from diaries, letters and meeting minutes, the script is, by nature, wordy. However, in pursuit of theatricality, subtle touches such as the artful, upside-down shadows are easily overlooked and there are some awkward changes of timbre, for example, the candlelit community choir overlap uncomfortably with the down to earth style of the dialogue.
The fluidity and variety in the staging is much needed to hold the audience’s attention for this trim four-hour version and the inevitable wordiness of a production shaped from prose is remarkably performed, even if the characters are often defined by narrative rather than dialogue. Erin Doherty is outstanding as quirky Soween who, through her diary written from the age of nine, recounts the development of her own feelings and relationships and her part in the downfall of the Divide. Jake Davies’ Elihu, her brother, is excellent, portraying innocent perplexity at the workings of the world, and there are fine performances by Weruche Opia as Giella, who sparks the forbidden feelings, Thusitha Jayasundera as Mapa, patriarch of the family and Richard Katz who plays Elihu’s irredeemable tutor.
A dystopian society built on homosexual relationships is perhaps an unintentionally reactionary view, and the influence of Margaret Atwood is hard to deny. But in the end, for all its new ideas, futuristic genre and topical themes, The Divide has Ayckbourn’s hallmark charm and commentary on the misunderstandings and miscommunications between the genders, in a grandiose but watchable production.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
Photography by Manuel Harlan