The Divide @ King's Theatre

Stale, arrogant, exhausting – Alan Ayckbourn’s Edinburgh International Festival premiere is best avoided

Review by Katie Hawthorne | 15 Aug 2017

Stale, timid, and prohibitive in both length and price, The Divide stumbles to inconclusions after six hours of laboured politics. The patronising take-away from Alan Ayckbourn’s ambitious epic is that, in 2017, we could still have it so much worse.

The year is 2201, and two historians are lecturing on the 100th anniversary of the fall of the Divide. They explain that a plague, carried by women but fatal to men, had decimated the population and resulted in a strictly segregated north/south, male/female divide, enforced by a biblical tome called the Certitude, penned by a mysterious Preacher.

The play is set in the South, and through the diary entries of a young Soween Clay and her brother Elihu, we’re introduced to the personal and political landscape of the Divide years: Homosexuality is the enforced norm in this puritanical society, and ingrained misogynist teachings are protected by Orthodox members of the local council. Women wear cumbersome black dresses and, when they marry, must choose between two reductive parental roles – the breadwinning Mapa or the childbearing Mama. The population is maintained by artificial insemination, and rare male babies born in the South must move North once they reach puberty and become vulnerable to infection.

Already confused? It’s no wonder. Ayckbourn’s dystopia is complicated and often contradictory. The plot holes are many, and the pace is slow – the story is told almost entirely by explanatory, repetitive, information-heavy monologues. It’s obvious how The Divide came to be so bloated.

Even less forgivable is how Ayckbourn’s imaginings are so strictly binary. Out of step with a society – and Fringe line-up – that’s becoming increasingly enlightened to gender fluidity, the world of The Divide never once ventures from the safety of caricatured gender roles. It becomes deeply depressing to watch the council members “bicker” – their word – over the outlawed status of mirrors. Teenage girls discover makeup and bright clothing as a laboured metaphor for political awakening, and crack hollow jokes about the hair removal practices of women ‘in the past’. It becomes increasingly difficult to tell where the damaging patriarchal structures in the play meet with a lack of total awareness on the part of the playwright.

After two teenagers embark on a forbidden, creepily fetishised and ultimately fatal heterosexual relationship – “I just want a traditional white wedding” cries Giella – the Divide falls. Spoiler: there was no plague. But you’d have guessed that half an hour in, anyway.

A brief ramble about ‘elite’ power structures serves as the only explanation for the Divide in the first place, and men and women re-integrate with a bounty of sexist jokes. Soween has been fascinated by the banned, ‘radical’ Jane Eyre throughout and, fittingly, it turns out that for all its chest-puffing, The Divide is little more than a marriage plot. The play ends as she celebrates fifty years married to a man who – ACTUAL QUOTE – attempted to “wreak havoc on her tonsils”.

A fluid, monochrome set, an excellent orchestra, and the heroic efforts of Erin Doherty (who, as Soween, remains engaging despite being burdened with the role of narrator), achieve the solitary star awarded to this production. It’s fortuitous for ticket sales that The Divide should premiere in a year when dystopian narratives have captured the public imagination, and it’s no coincidence that the show’s programme namedrops Margaret Atwood.

Ayckbourn’s women may share a similar uniformed aesthetic with characters in The Handmaid’s Tale, but even the suggestion of comparison is yet another instance of misguided arrogance. Exhausting.

The Divide: Parts 1 & 2, King's Theatre, until 20 Aug, 2pm & 7.30pm, £14-32 per show