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Richard Jordan: The great festival divide – why Ayckbourn’s latest should be playing at the EIF

Erin Doherty in The Divide at King's Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Marc Marnie Erin Doherty in The Divide at King's Theatre, Edinburgh. Photo: Marc Marnie
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When the 2017 Edinburgh International Festival programme was launched, several of my colleagues raised an eyebrow that a new two-part play called The Divide by Alan Ayckbourn was premiering at the festival.

They questioned if such a work could not have just been booked to play in one of Edinburgh’s theatres on almost any other touring week of the year; therefore, why did it need to be part of an international festival?

A similar criticism was made last year over the Edinburgh International Festival presentation of the Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones. At the time it played Edinburgh, however, no West End transfer had been scheduled – its deserved festival success afforded that to happen.

But an onward move from the Edinburgh Festival is not a new thing. Over the years, there has been a litany of frequently star-led West End and Broadway transfers including the 1991 Tango at the End of Winter starring Alan Rickman, the 2005 Blackbird starring Roger Allam and Jodhi May, and Complicite’s The Encounter in 2016.

Ayckbourn is the most-performed British playwright after William Shakespeare, and given that reasoning alone, the premiere of a new play by him at the UK’s largest international festival and co-produced with the Old Vic could be considered a coup.

Often when complaints arise about the inclusion of perceived populist (and commercial) productions at the festival, it’s because of an unhealthy assumption that audiences could have gone to see it in London. That is somehow then seen as devaluing its presence at the festival.

This is an inaccurate assessment to be making. That audiences from elsewhere in the UK and around the world have the chance to see these large-scale plays – often with big name actors – premiering at the festival is something to celebrate.

Outside of a festival context, if that same production were to be touring after a West End premiere, then most likely it would have been recast, often with popular TV names to help drive box office.

That’s assuming a play like The Divide would even tour – an intrinsic point to consider in the festival programming of this work and others like it.

This play is dark and complex and certainly not inherently commercial. It’s a far cry from Ayckbourn’s middle England comedies such as How the Other Half Loves.

Having watched both parts of The Divide, with its futuristic and brutal story of a dystopian society, I can safely say it is a “Marmite” play: audiences will passionately love or hate it.

In places it’s laboured and needs cutting (especially in the second part), but many of its flaws rest in direction and design. Nonetheless, it boasts some fine acting and I was certainly engaged and invested in the story throughout.

The Edinburgh International Festival will be criticised by those who will feel the production should have been perfect before opening. However, this is a work that will need to evolve through playing, much in the same way as other artists and writers whose major works have premiered at festivals.

Perhaps the most notable example of these is Robert Lepage. The Canadian theatremaker’s epic productions evolve; they are frequently very different at their opening public performance to the final ones.

With a work as dense as The Divide, it needs the playing time for audiences to tell it what is working and what is not. Festival audiences are often ideally suited to this task as they are generally culturally aware, although the volume of work that they see also makes them some of the toughest.

If you add to that a certain unfair stigma from some who see Ayckbourn as being just a commercial playwright whose plays are the stalwart of amateur dramatic companies across the country, then these are additional challenges it must overcome.

Although I would question if a similar conversation about a new work by any of his contemporaries such as Tom Stoppard or Michael Frayn premiering at the festival would have been subject to the same debate and scrutiny before opening.

Over at Manwatching, the Royal Court/Paines Plough show playing on the fringe at Summerhall, its writer is named as “anonymous.” In many respects, a similar listing might have benefitted The Divide although certainly not its advanced box office. Had that been the case, I would have betted on audiences if asked never guessing that Ayckbourn wrote it.

This should be seen as a testament to Ayckbourn’s genius ability to diversify and experiment. It is a bold and fearless move but carries with it enormous risk when many other established writers would have chosen to play it safe.

It’s a play that like it’s title suggests will greatly divide opinion, but it is also a work that I am still thinking about and discussing several days after watching it.

Its presence at this year’s festival therefore captures the spirit of ’47. However, when the subsequent post-festival analysis happens, irrespective of opinion on the work itself, the valuable decision of The Divide’s festival inclusion should not be one that ends up then getting dismissed.

 

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