The Divide is an exhausting, laborious watch. At 3 hours 50 minutes long it’s positively abridged compared to the two-part six hour original version at the Edinburgh International Festival last year, but it remains a work that’s preoccupied by exposition rather than narrative.
Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play is epic in scope, packed full of teenage melodrama. His dystopian world is part The Handmaid’s Tale, part Romeo and Juliet, with a large dose of sci-fi: a plague carried solely by women is lethal to men, resulting in a split society where men live in the urban north and women the rural south. Same-sex couples are the norm; men and women are forbidden to touch, so children are bred through artificial insemination. Men dress in pure white, women in shameful black – all wear masks for protection. World rules are stated in a religious tome strictly adhered to.
Ayckbourn goes to such lengths to establish this cruel fundamentalism that he too readily forgets about his characters. At the heart of the plot is a simple love triangle: the young Soween has fallen for her friend Giella, but Giella (daughter to progressive parents) is in love with Soween’s brother Elihu. Forbidden love and rebellion against staunch parents in a frightening dystopia that darkly mirrors our own world – it sounds like the plot of a young adult novel, because that’s precisely what this should be.
Instead, Ayckbourn has written a play that’s hardly a play at all. Its problem is with form. In an interview in the programme, he describes it as “a strange sort of piece… It’s a narrative for voices.” In practice, this means a series of spoken diary entries, letters, reports and council meetings that barely hang together and give the impression of being lectured to. The old adage of “show don’t tell” is long forgotten. It’s not helped by Annabel Bolton’s direction that too often involves characters simply addressing the audience in front of a black curtain.
The design, from Laura Hopkins, is sparsely monochromatic and certainly suggestive of this bleak world, but aside from the odd image it feels drained of interest. And behind it all is an orchestra and choir performing music from Christopher Nightingale: a mix of classical instruments and futuristic synths that add a faux sense of operatic grandeur. None of this is subtle, but then neither is Ayckbourn’s script, so keen is he to hit us over the head with his gender politics and religious views.
Yet in the middle of it all is a genuinely beautiful story of sexual awakening and the triumph of love. Amongst a cast of characters lacking humanity, Erin Doherty offers a gripping and complex performance as the young Soween coming of age in a tragic, relatable manner. In an evening of dreary, stagnant over-moralising, she is a vital spark of youthful energy.
The Divide was on at the Old Vic. Click here for more details.