Festival review – The Divide (rating: 4/5)
To describe this as an epic tale of a bleak future is to understate the commitment required of both the cast and the audience. Set over more than six hours and split into two plays, The Divide feels like a book narrated on stage. While generally gripping, its tendency at times to dwell on aspects of the plot only made me want to turn a few pages to move the story on.
Sir Alan Ayckbourn has created a world a hundred years on in which the sexes are segregated owing to a deadly disease spread by women who are kept in confinement, forced to wear a uniform of black (to denote their wickedness) and to comply with a strict moral code according to the Book of Certitude written by the mysterious Preacher.
There are many references in hymns and the opening “lectures” to the sinful behaviour of women (“a woman is cunning and manipulative”), although men are by no means spared the wrath of the ruler, chastised as sexual predators and for their natural leaning towards bawdiness.
Ayckbourn is better known for light entertainment, notably farcical comedy such as The Norman Conquests, and here he has deliberately departed from the norm by penning what he describes as a sexual satire in which heterosexuality is punishable.
As the writer says, the best science fiction is that which provides a cautionary tale for the present and the world of The Divide is a harsh and authoritarian backlash against the sins of the past.
This is not a long and hectoring morality tale, though it does build its humour around how far society has stooped from respectable behaviour.
The compulsory and unflattering dress code imposed on the women evokes comparison with Cromwell’s puritans, the Amish in America and the stern regime of the Convent, while the script reveals the innermost desires of the sexes to re-engage and to free themselves from these behavioural chains.
Such a long performance demands a Herculean effort from the cast, none more so than Erin Doherty as Soween, the wide-eyed young heroine who commands the stage almost throughout. Learning such a demanding part is heroic enough, but her performance was singly impressive as she delivered a perfect balance of pathos, anguish and comedy.
Ayckbourn has left direction to Annabel Bolton who has worked with designer Laura Hopkins to build a suitably futuristic world. The use of projected documentation and letters provides an effective audience aide memoire to the plot. The haunting score by Christopher Nightingale, played by a four-piece orchestra supported by a community choir, suitably complements the sombre tone of the action.
If this represents a huge departure for Ayckbourn then the ending is perhaps a reminder of his comedic track record and was perhaps a little too light and just a bit corny. While the first part maintains a good pace and leaves the audience wanting more, the second tends to drag a little through overstatement of the plot.
Miss Doherty powers on admirably, but at times I was left wanting it to skip along a few scenes. This is highly recommended, but it could have been just as impressive if half an hour shorter.
The Divide is a co-production between The Old Vic, London, Edinburgh International Festival and Karl Sydow, directed by Annabel Bolton, an associate director of The Old Vic. Performances at the King’s Theatre, 11-13, 15, 17, 19 and 20 August.