Writer: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Annabel Bolton
Reviewer: S.E. Webster
Incredible though it may sound, 2017 is actually Alan Ayckbourn’s debut at the Edinburgh International Festival. The prolific playwright, whose plays have been translated into more than 35 languages, is finally treading the floorboards at the Festival with his new work The Divide. Having united with the Old Vic and handed the director’s reigns to Annabel Bolton she has succeeded in taking what was a monumentally long and complex work, adapting it for the stage from five parts into just two.
Though the play is a departure from Ayckbourn’s previous writing, such as comic masterpieces like A Chorus of Disapproval, the play remains largely satirical and highly comic and there are plenty of tongue in cheek moments to provide some levity and balance in contrast to the darker side of the drama.
It has been noted, various writers from Margaret Atwood to Shakespeare have influenced this drama, while Ayckbourn has suggested that current affairs, including the Ebola epidemic, have also influenced his writing. In a dystopian future, a physical north-south divide is created in the UK to separate men from women in an attempt to preserve what is left of the human race, which has been decimated by an infectious disease that women apparently carry and men remain vulnerable to. IVF is used so women can continue to reproduce, and when their sons come of age and become vulnerable to infection they must cross the divide and live in the north.
The drama focuses on a love triangle between a sister (Erin Doherty) her classmate (Weruche Opia) and her brother (Jake Davies) and the ensuing fallout of their illicit relationship. Though Ayckbourn describes it as sci-fi, ‘speculative’, to use a word that Atwood has herself employed in describing The Handmaid’s Tale, is perhaps more appropriate, as the events in the play feasibly could, and in some respects already have happened.
Ayckbourn has described the original work as ‘a narrative for voices’ consisting of a wide variety of texts and forms, from Council minute meetings to diary entries. With the play’s first read-through running to 7 hrs 30 mins long, and the following edited version for the 2015 gala performance at the Stephen Joseph Theatre running to 8 hrs 30 mins long, the final finished play now runs to just six hours; 3 hours of performance time allocated to each part.
It’s a physical and emotional marathon for everyone involved, from the actors and the stage crew to the ushers and the audience. Of course, there is the option to see one part on one day and the second part on another, although this interrupts the flow of the drama, and there is an argument to be said for sticking with it and watching it all in one go. Indeed, in spite of its length, the drama is gripping, plot-driven and flows forward at a good pace, capturing and holding the attention of the audience and the time genuinely flies by.
Moreover, the production team is second to none with highly-experienced and talented individuals on board including David Plater as lighting designer, and Bobby Aitken (responsible for designing the sound for the Olympic and Paralympic opening and closing ceremonies for London 2012) on sound design. Add to that music from Christopher Nightingale, including live music from an orchestra and community choir and it’s evident from the start that only the best in the profession have been recruited to bring this dramatic vision to life.
Part 1 thus opens with the house lights still on and the audience are made to feel as if they are in a lecture theatre. With a total collapse of the fourth wall, we are lectured to directly about The Divide, which we are told collapsed 100 years ago. We are then invited to peer into the past, the lights go down and we go back in time (but notably into our own future).
For the most part, that fourth wall remains absent as the two siblings recite their diary entries, yet successfully master the tricky ability of alternately speaking directly out to the audience and interacting with the rest of the cast on stage. All of the actors and actresses give stellar performances and share great chemistry with one another. Jake Davies, (fans of BBC’s The Missing will recognise him as Matthew Webster) and Erin Doherty are convincing as children and then teenagers, with a charmingly naïve delivery at times that enhances the comedy in Ayckbourn’s writing. In particular, Doherty gives a confident performance as an anxious teenager, desperate to fit in yet faced with continued rejection, thoroughly captivating as she oscillates between anger and frustration and fear and loathing, and every emotion in between. Other notable performances include Thusitha Jayasundera as Soween and Elihu’s MaPa, an Orthodox councillor who believes firmly in the status quo. She puts terror into Soleen’s heart, and more than a generous measure into the audience as well. Likewise, Richard Katz juggles a whole variety of parts, effectively transitioning from lecturer, government official and deviant tutor, seamlessly switching accents and characters without even stepping into the wings to do so.
Throughout the drama, a combination of exceptionally clever lighting and use of stage drapes and theatre curtains, ensure slick stage transitions while reinforcing the close relationship these characters share with the written word. From diary extracts to the council minutes, emails between officials and even artistic sketches and drawings, the projection of moving images and words, that even flow along a drape as someone drags it across stage is very impressive and highly effective. Lighting is also used to essentially reflect and suggest characters’ emotions and works particularly well to suggest a waterfall in later scenes.
The costumes are starkly black and white, with adolescent and adult men wearing white protective suits, that echo the protective clothing worn by the doctors and nurses who worked in Sierra Leone. By contrast, the women wear black dresses which loosely echo the 17th Century dress of the Puritans, which those familiar with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible will recognise, conjuring associations of religious autocracy, moral guilt and paranoia. Even the stage set reflects the divide, with Part II opening to reflect a giant black and white triangle. Both Elihu (Davies) and Giella (Opia) sit on the same side of The Divide, when in fact we know they should be on opposite sides. Staging like this, which is so sensitive to the text, further enhances the themes and underlying symbolism in the play.
All in all, in the current political atmosphere and in light of recent catastrophic events like the Ebola crisis, The Divide is timely and thoroughly necessary. With a transfer due at the Old Vic after its Edinburgh run, there is no doubt that it will continue to engage audiences and provoke questions about gender, sexuality and equality. A genuinely ground-breaking production, it may be Ayckbourn’s Edinburgh International Festival debut, but it also may well be his best work yet.
Reviewed on 19 August 2017 | Image: Contributed