Mention the name Alan Ayckbourn and most people think first of small-scale, often achingly funny, domestic comedies with sharply observed characters. However, Ayckbourn has a long professed interest in sci-fi and, in The Divide, he has created a vision of a future dystopian England with a strict gender gap and more than a nod to The Handmaid’s Tale – and not just in the style of the bonnets.
This is a future where women wear black as a symbol of their unclean nature – they are the carriers of a plague that has almost destroyed the human race. They live in the south of each community while the men – once they reach 18 – live in the north and dress in white because obviously they’re the good guys. Partners of the same sex are the norm and, in the female communities, one partner, the MaMa, is artificially inseminated to produce children and her partner, the MaPa, is the provider for the family. Women’s life is prim, puritanical and performed according to the rigours of the Book of Certitude which tells women they are and have always been full of sin. On the rare occasions men and women meet, they pull on muslin masks that give them the faceless look of a tailor’s dummy.
So far, so grim. However, our understanding of this far from brave new world comes through the eyes of Soween who has kept a diary in South Sarum since the age of nine. Her gaucheness and naivety – and this is a quite brilliant performance by Erin Doherty – even bring us a few laughs. (When she first observes a forbidden heterosexual encounter, she assumes it’s two people fighting.) And this is a play that’s as much about Soween’s path towards self-discovery as it is about the dystopian world around her.
Soween’s diaries are projected on to black backdrops (this is a very dark set) and this is just one of many effective devices in this production – the waterfall is another. And, in fact, the lighting, design and videos (David Plater, Laura Hopkins, Ash J Woodward) are all excellent. The music, composed by Christopher Nightingale and with a choir sometimes seen, sometimes just heard, is quite beautiful and adds drama at key moments.
And this, of course, brings us back to the drama itself. When it appeared first at the Edinburgh Festival, this was a two-parter that lasted altogether for six hours. Director Annabel Bolton has cut it down to just under four and this is undoubtedly to its benefit as the real drama here is a simple Romeo and Juliet one that develops well into the second half of the play. Elihu (a moving performance by Jake Davies) is Soween’s brother and he falls for the beautiful Giella (a luminous Weruche Opia). Unfortunately, so does Soween which would have been a simple matter in South Sarum. However, Giella loves Elihu and when their forbidden love is discovered, outrage and courtroom scenes follow.
Does Ayckbourn weave these two threads together satisfactorily? Not entirely. As I was leaving the theatre I overheard two comments. “Brilliant,” one said breathlessly. “Mawkishly sentimental,” said the other. And both have an element of truth. For my money, this is a play worth seeing for its performances and production alone. But Ayckbourn has achieved a piece that keeps you riveted throughout. Which over four hours is no mean achievement.
The Divide at The Old Vic until 10th February 2018. For more information and tickets please visit the website.