Alan Ayckbourn’s huge new two-part dystopian drama The Divide – the most high profile show at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival – imagines a world where women and men are segregated. It’s set 100 years from now, after a plague has ravaged the population. Those who have survived live separate lives on either side of the divide. The men wear white while the still contagious – and therefore sinful – women wear black outfits that look like a cross between Edwardian mourning garb and an abaya.
Their lives are governed by a text called the Book of Certitude and the dictates of a mysterious Preacher. Women form partnerships with one another in order to raise children, with one assuming the role of the MaMa, the child bearer, the other the MaPa, the provider. Heterosexual relationships are considered abnormal and dangerous. People wear masks to avoid contagion rendering themselves eerily faceless.
Brother and sister Soween and Elihu grow up in a village on the female side of the divide in a system that puts far greater value on his life than hers. The fourteen year old Soween and her brother both fancy classmate Giella but she has her sights set on Elihu and the two embark on a forbidden relationship.
The Divide feels like a stage version of a YA novel fused with bits of The Handmaid’s Tale and a commentary on the dangers of equating sex with sin. But after six long hours spent in this world it remains hard to work out exactly what the play is trying to say .
This is in part because the rules are frustratingly opaque. The vast majority of the play is set in the women’s side of the divide and the only glimpses of the men’s side we get involve scenes of people playing golf. How does the all-male world work? Is the plague actually a tool of social control? What caused the technological regression that seems to have befallen their society?
Dissidence in this world appears to involve wearing high heels and lipstick, while pictures of Renaissance art are considered to be pornographic. Mirrors aren’t allowed and this leads to Soween having a weird fever dream about make-up.
Part One opens with a framing scene set years after the fall of the divide in which two academics serve up large chunks of exposition in the form of a history lecture. The bulk of the story is told via Soween and Elihu’s diary entries and through correspondence between various village officials. This means that the characters are forever describing what they’re doing rather than doing actual things, and there are more scenes of council meetings than an audience should ever have to sit through.
Ayckbourn has created dystopian work before. He has form. His 2012 play Surprises was set in an android-populated future, and he’s spoken in interviews about hoping to attract younger audiences to theatre with sci fi. There are times when Annabel Bolton’s production feels like a low-budget Netflix show – only you can’t pause it mid-way through and make a toastie and a cup of tea.
Erin Doherty, as the unfortunate Soween, propels the production along though sheer force of personality. Her character is forever being banished to her room or forced to drink urine but she remains a buoyant presence.
Because the play is set in a monochrome world where colour is forbidden, for the most part the staging looks dark and drab. Occasionally a prop or platform is trundled out but large chunks of the play feature Doherty in her black bonnet looking pained as she rattles through acres of narration. Faced with a near-impossible job, Doherty succeeds in making you care about Soween.
While Part One is basically a discount dystopia designed for a tweenage audience, tolerable if tedious, Part Two really dials up the strange. There’s a wedding between Giella and Elihu because girls in plague-ravaged future worlds still dream of wedding dresses apparently and even happen to have them lying around – is there some black market in illicit clothing, I wonder? – coupled with some discussion of whether Elihu might be the ‘chosen one’ and immune from the disease. The couple decide to mark their illegal union by having a great big party, which seems like a pretty big dystopia no-no, everything inevitably goes pear-shaped and somehow – Ayckbourn’s a bit fuzzy on the details – their doomed union ends up becoming a catalyst for the collapse of the whole system.
While on one hand Ayckbourn’s play seems to be saying that everyone should be free to love anyone they want, all people should be equal, and if you impose divisions, tragedy will follow, inadvertently the whole thing ends up feeling like a massive exercise in gay erasure. One of the more interesting aspects of this whole bloated experience is the single sex, homosocial world that comes about as a result of the divide, but when the wall falls and the women are free to fuck all the men again – hurrah – this whole way of life is abandoned: Soween who has only known a world where women love women is swayed by the first dude she claps eyes on.
The Divide raises so many questions. The chief one being had no one actually read it before deciding to put it on? And did they not notice how regressive the whole thing was? Or question whether it was necessary for it to go on for so long? Length alone does not make for event theatre. By the end The Divide feels like a feat of endurance more than anything else.