A plague carried by females that only infects males results in a total divide between the sexes: men in the north and women in the south. Oppressive rituals and rules from ‘The Book of Certitude’ remind the women, dressed in all black, of their guilt and culpability in the continual tarnishing of men’s purity (who are dressed in white). We are given this information through a framing device: an older version of the main character Sowen gives a reading from her book that’s compiled of diary entries from the time of the divide.
While some aspects of Ayckbourn’s dystopia are evocative, it’s mostly derivative and underexplored. Reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale though less intricate, so much of the world is left un-sketched, including many of the characters. Ayckbourn, a powerhouse of British farce, chooses a light-hearted, almost comic register that fails to capture the severity of the situations Soween faces. Worse still, the framing device disables any dramatic tension, with Soween retelling everything directly to the audience.
Luckily Erin Doherty as Soween is incredibly endearing – plucky, smart, and endlessly compassionate. Doherty paces the laborious script perfectly, so that while the four-hour long play is still overblown, she manages to never make it lag.
So it’s a shame that Doherty’s Soween is undermined by the script. Same-sex relationships are the only relationships allowed, and so predictably the plot becomes centred on a transgressive heterosexual relationship between Elihu (Jake Davies), Soween’s brother, and Giella (Weruche Opia). But the intricacies of the same-sex relationships are never developed (nevermind considering how trans or other queer people might be treated in this world). Sadly Soween, who demonstrates such genuine and heartfelt love for two other women, seems to fall for the first man she meets post the divide.
Finally, with some window-dressing additions to the action, including a large choir at the back of the stage, and a saccharine photo montage at the end, The Divide is an unfortunate misfire. Even with a trim, Ayckbourn’s sprawling drama fails to make its meaning clear and fails to resonate.
|The Divide, Old Vic Theatre review
|The Old Vic, The Cut, London, SE1 8NB | MAP
01 Feb 18 – 10 Feb 18, 7:00 PM – 10:00 PM
|£12 - £80
|Click here to book via the Old Vic