Once, according to legend, there was a six-hour version of The Divide, Alan Ayckbourn’s belated entry, at 78, into the Young Adult dystopia genre. Some Edinburgh Festival attendees even claimed to have seen it. Watching this revised production, a mere three hours and forty-five minutes short, it’s hard to imagine the expansions.
As you crawl home you think, perhaps Ayckbourn, the grand old cock of British theatre, was aiming for something like Shakespearian grandiosity – a tragedy featuring a pair of hot crossed lovers; a lyric with something to say about the increasing toxicity and mistrust between the sexes in light of rows about everyday sexism, unequal pay, and of course the recent “Metoo” discourse that’s turned social media into a catalogue of sexual assault allegations.
What we get is weightless; a play, or “narrative for voices” as the Old Vic’s publicity nonsensically describes it, lacking poetry or profundity, redolent of sharper film and literary dystopias. John Boorman, Margaret Atwood and Arthur Miller, to name but three, have done it with more depth and focus, and in the case of the aforementioned playwright, greater concision.
Here, a world of post-apocalyptic gender segregation is rendered with broad, often whimsical strokes. The Divide is framed like an epic poem, an oral history of the future, but without wit or insight it resembles a fairy tale, and one thick with sci-fi and fantasy clichés. Characters with rootless names, the end of history being the end of established geography, the threat of an old disease kept alive to maintain the social and political order – we know these tropes like old friends, though old friends we’d like to see less.
The politics of Ayckbourn’s play are confused and confusing. It boasts progressive credentials – lesbian and gay relationships become the new defaults (omitting transgenderism) but by the time the old/new social order breaks down, we’ve regressed to an affirmation of heteronormativity. It’s not the biological imperative that misses the mark, rather the attribution of the word “normal”. A mawkish climax, so twee it drains the blood from your gendered area, reminds you that love is a fluid thing that knows no boundary, but someone forgot to tell the characters.
At my performance, beset by technical flubs, the audience rose at the end, having prematurely clapped to close the play, in gratitude and sympathy with Erin Doherty, who as our narrator Soween (sounds like Zoe from row Q), carried the entire thing on her slender shoulders. Doherty may be the only positive reason to see Ayckbourn’s folly, such is her professionalism and warmth. Her tender performance sells the naiveté that characterises the whole enterprise. In short, she bridges the divide between playwright and audience. Ayckbourn could have done more to help but nothing becomes The Divide more than a woman doing all the hard work.