The Divide

Alan Ayckbourn
Old Vic, Edinburgh International Festival
Old Vic Theatre

The Divide Credit: Manuel Harlan
Elihu (Jake Davies) Credit: Manuel Harlan
Sassa (Sophie Melville) and Soween (Erin Doherty) Credit: Manuel Harlan

There is a good cast of women performing Alan Ayckbourn’s The Divide.

Erin Doherty, who has superb comic timing and a remarkable ability to inhabit a role, is particularly impressive. She could make the reading of a telephone directory interesting.

They certainly had a challenge with Ayckbourn’s alternate world extravaganza.

The plot is slight, the drama limited by too much of it being told or read to us rather than being shown, the music is irritatingly played to ramp up the sentimentality and there is a strange political confusion that might be supporting gender equality even as it caricatures feminism and depicts homosexuality as some kind of prison to be escaped.

The play depicts a future world where men and women have been divided geographically with men living in the North and women in the South. All are ruled over by a woman preacher.

Heterosexuality is banned for fear that women may kill men with a plague (I think we have heard that one before). Any woman who uncovers herself before a man could be sentenced to death.

Homosexuality is the norm and children are raised to expect life with same-sex partners, though when the revolution comes they show a surprising keenness for heterosexuality.

Society is governed by the religious “Book of Certitude” which details the stupidity and wickedness of women.

We see little of the men who live in the North drinking alcohol, listening to jazz and playing golf.

This two hundred and twenty-five-minute epic concentrates on the religious fundamentalist women down south (maybe this is the ISIS branch of Feminism) where every adult woman is completely covered in public. This includes the wearing of a visor over the face which gives the unsettling robotic appearance of blank whiteness.

The story centres on Soween (Erin Doherty) and her brother Elihu (Jake Davies ) who live a restricted existence with their women parents “MaMa”, the child bearer, and “MaPa”, the tougher provider. Boys are allowed to live with their parents till the age where contact with women might kill them.

It is a boring existence for a child but help is on the way in the form of a male tutor for Elihu who secretly brings him pictures of naked women and takes him swimming naked.

Anywhere else, he might be suspected of paedophilia and at least referred to the nearest safeguarding committee. Here, he is the heroic spark of rebellion that leads to Elihu developing a taste for sexual contact with women.

He falls in love with Giella (Weruche Opia), the member of a gang who forced his sister to drink glasses of urine. In turn, this relationship somehow inexplicably causes a spontaneous revolution in which women throw off their niqabs (sorry I mean total black coverings) and reveal very colourful dresses.

The plot is ridiculous; the politics so convoluted and confused you can’t work out if it is a hymn in praise of patriarchy, a warning against homosexuality taking over the world, an attack on religious fundamentalism or simply an old fashioned conservative yearning for a golden age of heterosexuality. All that makes it a very tiring play to watch.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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