Men and women cannot live together! This is the premise The Divide presents of an England in approximately a century’s time when society is segregated according to binary gender attributions where heterosexuality is considered an abomination. Males live with males in cities to the north and females with females in southern villages, exhibiting a certain irony to the geographic location of those who seem to have more. Religion also treats males as superior to females, and women are in fact held to be evil tempters of violence, including sexual abuse, and blamed for a devastating disease of which they are carriers, with men being vulnerable to this ‘plague’. The males’ world is not without its problems, however, as violence and bigotry are glimpsed within their lives, as well as usual relationship difficulties. The main setting, though, is in a women’s village, with only two boys (males are not vulnerable when young), and here a brother and sister narrate their diaries – for the frame for this 2-part play, spanning six hours, are The Divide Lectures: two lecturers in the year 2201 present the, for them, historic fall of The Divide in 2101. We then see what is narrated as the siblings cover some years and an elicit romance which – apparently – brings about the fall of this regime.
Production values are high for this Alan Ayckbourn piece: hidden musicians and a community choir provide often gorgeous accompaniment with music by Christopher Nightingale (occasionally somewhat reminiscent of Carmina Burana, but with a number of styles in the mix) and the set of layered screen, video (from Ash J. Woodward), curtains, steps and platforms is versatile and magnificently lit (by David Plater) and soundscaped (by Bobby Aitken). The performance of Erin Doherty as the female narrator is very strong – nuanced, emotionally and mentally well-connected, physically engaging: clear throughout – and she is ably supported by Jake Davies, who has whimsy and energy aplenty, as the male narrator, with Richard Katz bringing dynamism to his various roles. A beautifully emotion-rooted soliloquy from the love interest’s mother – played by Clare Burt – also impresses, and the ensemble embodies characters with liveliness and clarity, though the love interest herself (for both the narrators) was on this occasion more visually than passionately believable in her performance.
With confident direction from Annabel Bolton, an interesting premise, decent performances and distinctive design by Laura Hopkins, along with an Ayckbourn script and a co-production / Edinburgh International Festival budget and promotion, this should really be a festivals highlight. However, if this were not an Ayckbourn script, would it even have been produced as a play at all? The plot story is far too slim for the time taken and – despite the engaging sister and brother at its heart – there is too much repetition of story points, expositional devices and even emotions explored. Actual boredom is kept at bay by the performances – in particular Doherty’s – and the direction and design, rather than by the script, despite its interesting premise and occasional light touches. Still, some clock watching was involved, for both parts.
While Ayckbourn does hold a mirror up to our own appearance-focused and genderised time with signs of questioning it, today’s society’s norms of high heels and makeup for women, and pink as a girl’s “natural” (i.e. fighting social norms) choice – out of all the colours of nature’s palette – even comes over (along with alcohol) as representing freedom for the women, with alcohol, superior political information and golf simply par for the men. The wished for union / reconciliation of opposite sexes at the end involves such appearance norms, as well as clichés re. men understanding women. While there are political manipulations, the premise set-up and what really brings about the fall of the divide are not explored, presented nor thought through with any detail, although the black and white – with grey for children – visual world and its religious mores are clear. Ideas are sometimes referenced that invite further exploration, but then completely disappear. The Romeo and Juliet sacrifice is actually unnecessary for the fall of the Divide (unlike Shakespeare’s reconciliation between families) – in fact it is the couple being alive that best exposes the system! This only adds to the unfortunate thought that the piece romanticises suicide for teens.
The Divide does show wit, its presentation is of high quality, and some discussion among audience members, between the two parts, was about the society presented – surely what Ayckbourn et al really want. Most conversation by the end, however, uniting complete strangers, was only about the feeling that so much could have been condensed, and that this was a young adult novel that simply did not suit performance on stage.
Until 20th August, various times, duration approx. 3 hours per part, 6 hours in total @ King’s Theatre