The Divide Parts One and Two

Aug 14 2017 | By More

★★★☆☆     Long time coming

King’s Theatre (EIF): Tues 8 – Sun 20 Aug 2017
Review by Hugh Simpson

The official Festival’s flagship production of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Divide at the King’s contains multitudes.

Reminiscent of a box-set binge rather than a regular play, its portrait of a sexually segregated dystopia – with hints of Margaret Atwood and various works of Young Adult fiction – is probably not for everyone.

The Divide. Pic: Marc Marnie

Ayckbourn, a far more versatile and complex writer than is often recognised, has used science fiction before, but this full-blown affair – two separate parts, each three hours long – is still something of a departure.

A disease that has killed off most of the male population has led to a literal North-South divide, with men on one side and women on another. Heterosexual relationships are forbidden, and adults wear masks to avoid infection. On the south of the divide are teenage brother and sister Elihu and Soween (the rare male children live with the women until adulthood).

There are definite signs that Ayckbourn originally had thoughts of this as a prose work. He described it as unstageable, and has abandoned his customary position as director of his own works to Annabel Bolton. The end result requires virtually a whole day set aside to see it all.

Much of the narrative is made up of minutes of meetings, emails and diaries. The pivotal events are often taken from Soween and Elihu’s diary entries, with the appropriate figure describing the action as much as taking part in it.

related in retrospect

At times this gives it the feel of an eighteenth-century epistolary novel; important happenings are related in retrospect and sometimes in an order that seems counter-intuitive.

Generally, such an ‘and this is what I am doing now’ style of onstage narration is confined to less than inspired adaptations of ‘classic’ novels – a feel evoked here by regular references to the Brontes – and can be very irritating.

Here, however, it has a couple of things going for it. The first is that using teenage narrators for large sections adds a level of dramatic irony, with the audience able to see the implications of what is happening much more clearly. It also enables an exceptionally complex picture of the dystopian society of the Divide to be built up much more economically than dialogue or straightforward description would.

The other strong point is how well the actors playing Elihu and Soween respond to the challenge. They are both thoroughly enthralling figures – which is lucky, since we spend so much time in their company. Jake Davies (Elihu) is attractively compelling, while Erin Doherty’s Soween holds the whole show together in a multi-faceted portrait of teenage hope, determination and misery.

Strong support comes from the whole cast, with Weruche Opia’s Giella – the object of both the siblings’ fascination – complex and mysterious, and Thusitha Jayasundera and Finty Williams impressive as Soween and Elihu’s parents. Joanne McGuinness makes a convincing bully, Sophie Melville is spiky as Soween’s erstwhile best friend, and Richard Katz faces the challenge of playing almost every male role with gusto.

definite infelicities

The massive problems inherent in the staging of such a huge piece are resolved by Bolton largely successfully, with Laura Hopkins’ design being particularly strong. Christopher Nightingale’s music is realised by a community choir and live musicians, with much use made of the mournful cellos of Justin Pearson and Lowri Preston.

The Divide. Pic: Marc Marnie

There are definite infelicities in the plot. The decision to start with an academic lecture outlining the situation sets the scene cleverly and does make for interesting staging, but in portraying the whole era of The Divide as something that is now over does remove much of the jeopardy from what then takes place. Perhaps this pre-empting is a nod to Romeo and Juliet, which this comes increasingly to resemble, but still seems a mistake.

There are tonal problems too, with Part Two veering wildly from tension to humour, with an ending that is not only disappointing dramatically, but is worryingly heteronormative in the light of what has gone before.

Like most SF, this is really about the present day. The future depicted here still has breathlessly emotional adolescent love letters and vindictive playground bullying. It also has politics driven by ego and personality clashes, and bureaucrats whose main concern in taking fatal decisions is how to create a paper trail to cover themselves.

A rhythm soon evolves that takes the audience through the daunting length of the two plays, but there are still times when it seems as much a trial of mental strength as an entertainment. There is much here that is thought-provoking, and as an experience it has a great deal to recommend it. It just takes such a long time to achieve its ends.

Running time: Part One 3 hours including one interval
Part Two 3 hours 5 minutes including one interval

Part of the Edinburgh International Festival
King’s Theatre 2 Leven Street, Grindlay Street, EH3 9LQ
Part One: Tuesday 8 (preview),Wednesday 16 & Friday 18 August at 7.30 pm; Friday 11, Saturday 12, Sunday 13, Tuesday 15, Thursday 17, Saturday 19 & Sunday 20 August at 2.00 pm
Part Two: Wednesday 9 (preview), Friday 11,, Saturday 12, Sunday 13, Tuesday 15, Thursday 17, Saturday 19 & Sunday 20 August at 7.30 pm; Wednesday 16 & Friday 18 August at 2.00 pm
Book tickets on the Festival website:

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Comments (2)

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  1. Ray Snaith says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the ending…. you sit through 6 hours of this for what…. something that sounds like second rate Barbara Cartland.

    • Adele Nicol says:

      The ending was terrible and went on far too long. The lecture at the beginning is odd -since we know from the first few minutes the dystopia will end. Erin Doherty and indeed the rest of the cast carried and made the best of some very weak material. It is fortunate they and Doherty in particular were so good-in their hands it was at least very watchable-as a play it has the potential to be dire if acted by a less cast.