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A lumbering dystopian odyssey from the venerable Alan Ayckbourn
Alan Ayckbourn's new play is six hours long.
You could fly to New York in that time.
'GATZ', the seminal live performance of the entirety of 'The Great Gatsby', was actually only six hours once you took out the intervals.
The unexpurgated, nobody-actually-does-it-that-length-because-that-would-be-mental version of ‘Hamlet’ is only four-and-a-half hours long.
Why is 'The Divide', a two-part show that tells a relatively straightforward story that could clearly have been wrapped up in a single, conventional length play, so bloody long?
As far as I can tell from the accompanying bumpf, what happened is that Ayckbourn wrote a work of young adult fiction that wasn’t actually intended for the stage, and then the idea came up to stage without little in the way of cuts, and here we are. It’s not so much that 'The Divide’ is boring – though it is in places – it’s more that the extreme length feels so hysterically unnecessary.
Anyhoo: ‘The Divide’ is a dystopian drama set in a future Britain in which a plague wiped out most of the country's population a century ago. In its present form the plague is only dangerous to adult men, and is carried by women. Hence, The Divide, a separation of the country into the women-inhabited south and the men-inhabited north. Homosexuality has been institutionalised as a result – we never really see northern society (though are aware it revolves around same-sex relationships), but in the south family units are headed by a Mama and a Mapa, with children conceived by artificial insemination, and boys – of which there are very few – prepared from adolescence for a move to the north aged 18. Limited contact between the genders exists, but after boys turn 15 the parties eerie, faceless encounter suits must be worn in mixed company. Predictably this is not a matriarchy, even in the south, but a regressive, fundamentalist society dominated by the misogynist teachings of a shadowy figure called The Preacher.
There’s a lot to be going on in this world, but one of the frustrations of ‘The Divide’ is how narrow the focus of its enormous length is. In essence it simply tells the story of Soween (Erin Doherty), a young girl coming of age in a southern village, and Elihu (Jake Davies), her older brother. Doherty gives an absolutely terrific performance, full of the naivety and confusion and pain and dashed dreams of adolescence – without her this would be pretty much unwatchable. Her lonely march towards adulthood rings true and gives the show a core that makes sense.
Unfortunately much else does not makes sense: the prodigious running time brings the details of this world under closer scrutiny than they might, and without giving too much away, the plot developments that lead to the end of The Divide (we’re told in the prologue opening scene that it ended) are pretty daft, and point to some very flimsy foundations for this world next to the grand architecture of Orwell and Atwood (let's just say that if I was running a sinister gender-separated dystopia I probably wouldn’t leave horny teenage boys wandering free in villages full of women).
It also feels like it could have been oh-so-much sharper with a polish from somebody else. Ayckbourn’s well-meaning takes on feminism, gender and sexuality are awkwardly bumbling at times (especially the tone deaf series of romantic twists in the final few minutes). And the satire feels tepid where it might have been piercing: as far as I can tell the world is basically being run by alt right bros, but essentially all the men we see are avuncular chaps with little ideological investment in any of this.
Like most follies, ‘The Divide’ is an impressive achievement in its way: Ayckbourn – who lest we forget is 78 – does present a genuinely compelling world, even if it's full of holes; director Annabel Bolton keeps things going as slickly as she can considering she presumably wasn’t allowed to chop the thing in half; Laura Hopkins’s encounter suit costumes are creepily compelling; and it’s a fine cast generally, with bright talents like Sophie Melville tucked away in there as Soween’s adolescent crush Sassa.
If I was just reviewing part one I’d probably bung on an extra star, but ultimately shelling out the time and money to see the story lumber on for another three hours is a pretty massive ask. Kudos to Ayckbourn for making it, I guess, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should have to watch it all.