Andrzej Lukowski: More theatres should intervene when plays flop
Alan Ayckbourn’s The Divide was not a divisive show. It was panned by pretty much every critic who saw it after opening as the monolithic centrepiece to this summer’s Edinburgh International Festival.
I was one of the panners – for various reasons, but mostly because the play about a gender-segregated future Britain was six-hours long and felt almost double that.
The two-part bulk seemed an almost bewildering act of hubris: there was nothing about the young adult fiction-style dystopian yarn that particularly lent itself to being almost double the length of the Hamlet running in the West End at the same time.
I didn’t exactly hate it though, as it was an interesting failure. Inexcusably long and deeply flawed, but – at the very least – a novel stab at genre writing from a 78-year-old playwright genuinely unafraid to take a risk.
Still, that wouldn’t offer much reassurance for co-producers the Old Vic, which was scheduled to host the two-parter from late January, for a brief but – one would assume – agonising reprise.
Fair play, then, to whoever persuaded Ayckbourn to hack his cherished odyssey into a solitary play in advance of the London run. The news was quietly buried in the fifth paragraph of a recent press release, with the delightfully euphemistic comment: “The development process has continued and it is now possible to stage The Divide as a single performance”.
Translation: he lopped 50% of the words out because presumably the market for part two of a play that had been panned for being excessively long was not massive.
The next paragraph was also a humdinger: “To celebrate the first full production of our very special bicentenary year, we are delighted to extend our PwC £10 previews tickets across the entire run.” This essentially means half of the tickets to every performance are priced at £10, way cheaper than most fringe shows.
It is tempting to chuckle at the face-saving contortions of language: certainly the venerable theatre appears not to be ‘celebrating’ its bicentenary year via the price of its more commercially viable shows.
But actually, hats off to the Old Vic. Crisis management has not been its forte of late, but this is the sort of bold salvage operation that we could sometimes do with more of in theatre.
In Hollywood, films are cut, doctored, shelved and worse on their way to the screen. It’s now pretty much obligatory that the first director of any modern franchise film gets the heave.
Theatre is a very different medium and only big musicals tend to have anything like the development time of a screen blockbuster. Still, the sort of ruthlessness turned on The Divide sometimes feels painfully lacking elsewhere in UK theatre.
The National’s infamously ropey 2017 Olivier season was marked by a series of plays – Salome, Common, Saint George and the Dragon – that at the very least could have have done with somebody at the top demanding an extra week of previews. It’s great that the subsidised sector (which the Old Vic isn’t strictly part of, though it’s a non-commercial theatre and The Divide is co-produced with the publicly-funded EIF) can shelter risky work.
But sometimes I wonder if there should be more drastic intervention when work is obviously not connecting with audiences. Sure, you don’t want gimlet-eyed money men calling the shots. But there is the sense that bad productions are sometimes just tolerated because it’s the most diplomatic thing to do (a rare example of interventionism that springs to mind is Nicholas Hytner giving terrible eco-drama Greenland the boot after everyone hated it).
In a further act to protect The Divide’s second coming, the press night has been bumped until virtually the end of the short run. Accepting that it’s already been mauled by critics, it’s basically about as critic-proof as it gets and I wonder if it will actually get many re-reviews. Which is kind of a shame, because dammit, I’m now curious to see it again.