Old Vic (venue)
09 February 2018 (released)
12 February 2018
Alan Ayckbourn, a master of tight dramatic form describes his new play at The Old Vic as 'a narrative for voices' perhaps even 'a novel in dialogue form'. Now running at a mere three hours fifty minutes, it has already been heavily trimmed from an exhausting six hours (in two parts) at the Edinburgh Festival last year. The vast majority is exposition rather than actual drama based around the diary entries of teenage siblings Soween and Elihu living in a fundamentalist, segregated world. If this all sounds like a heavy night of theatre, Annabel Bolton's efforts to stage this unusual piece are for the most part highly successful and the cast are exceptional. The content is far less unusual than the form - a coming of age story full of charm and with wide appeal.
Set in a post plague landscape, Men live north of the border, safely away from the women who could infect them with the terrible plague. South of the border, the women live austere, colourless lives, dressed in heavy dark clothes, one mirror per household to avoid vanity and an all too familiar fundamentalist approach to most matters of living. They couple up as Ma-ma's and Ma-pa's, sending for sperm to start their families. In the North, men can listen to jazz, drink alcohol and be imprisoned for heterosexual pornography (think the Birth of Venus). However we soon discover that an underground movement of 'free spirits' is taking hold, with the 'Book of Certitude' being challenged in the South Sarum village council meetings. When teenage Elihu and his sisters friend, Giella fall in love, the Romeo and Juliet story begins…
Erin Doherty gives an enchanting, luminous performance as young Soreen. She has the gargantuan task of narrating virtually the entire show via her diary entries along with those of her brother Elihu, played with touching earnestness by Jake Davis. Thusitha Jayasundera is hilarious and quite brilliant as Kest, the puritanical, Ma-Pa with a look of disapproval permanently written across her face.
Laura Hopkins design is clean and elegant, making clever use of the depth and height of the Old Vic stage to create towering waterfalls or cathedral like spaces. There are some heavenly moments when the full choir sing and the stage flickers with candle-light. There's no doubt Christopher Nightingale's music for keyboard, double bass, cello and woodwind play a significant role in the slow pleasure of the evening.
What point is The Divide trying to make? Love is better than hate, orthodox religion is dangerous, men and women should be together?? The gender debate is vibrant and wide ranging at the moment yet The Divide simplifies this conversation rather than deepening it, seemingly out of touch with the LGBT issues. Although often funny, sometimes the satire feels mundane or predictable.
Given that this dystopian world and many hours of stage time gave Ackbourne huge freedom, it is disappointing to feel in the end that no new territory has been explored. That said, it is a beautifully crafted production and a classic tale, likely to appeal to those who love settling into their velvet seats for a well told story.
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