Review: The Divide at The Old Vic
Let’s just be upfront about this: The Divide is three hours and fifty minutes long. That includes the twenty-minute intermission so it’s only three and a half hours of content, but given that it’s the theatre and nothing ever starts on time, you’re going to be hitting the post-show bar at about 11 pm. And it’s honestly worth it. Well—mostly. But we’ll get to that.
Framed as if it’s documentary theatre, pieced together from journal entries, council minutes, and emails, Alan Ayckbourn’s new play tells the story of a future dystopia where a devastating male-only plague now means that men and women live in permanent separation, the women under strict theocratic laws meant to punish their natural sinfulness and to keep men safe from their infectious capabilities. As such, the family units are all headed by same-sex couples, and heterosexuality is an unspeakable sin. Women dress all in black, men all in white, and everyone wears creepy full-face masks to prevent infection when in mixed company.
Nothing is blazingly original—a bit of Handmaid’s Tale here, including a framing device set after this society has collapsed; a bit of Romeo and Juliet there; names straight out of The Hunger Games—but it’s expressed through the fresh eyes and voice of Soween, the teenage narrator played by Erin Doherty. Soween feels splendidly, joyfully real. Ayckbourn has crafted a truly pitch-perfect picture of a very bright, very awkward, very earnest young teenager, too meek to rebel and too smart to be untroubled by uncertainty. And Doherty’s performance is tremendous. She’s a magnetic presence onstage, and I’d happily spend another three and a half hours watching her. Her unflagging energy is a key part of what lets the play clip by without ever feeling its runtime. The rest of the ensemble is strong too, but Doherty is, in every sense of the word, the star.
It’s just exciting to see a play that’s so ambitious, especially one whose large cast is mostly women (though I wish it were more diverse). There’s a live band and a live choir, and no fear of building a whole, strange, complicated world. The story is simultaneously vast and deeply intimate, and though sometimes the lines between the two don’t feel totally fully drawn (how, exactly, do the events of the play lead to wide-scale change?) it’s easy to get swept up in the plain old joy of hearing a good story.
But some of you may find yourselves in the same position as me on one point that, for your sake, I have to clarify. I spent the entire play with a little knot of nervousness in my stomach. I wanted so badly—so badly—for Soween to just be allowed to be a lesbian. I was so hopeful that Ayckbourn would subvert the obvious ending, would let the love she felt for various other girls over the course of the play (and the course of her life, as the story spans years) just be the honest truth of who she was. I waited with dread for the moment when the queerness would be undermined, when we would be reassured that the world is restored to normal not just because equality is restored because balance is restored, but because heterosexual relationships are restored. So let me just tell you right now: that’s exactly what happens.
Her courtship by a man is so spectacularly tone-deaf in light of the current cultural climate—replete with suggestions to never take no for an answer and just grab her and stick your tongue down her throat (literally)—that I honestly thought the boy was being set up to fail. Nope. It’s such a profound disappointment. I’m honestly embarrassed at how deeply disappointed I was—still am—about it. The Divide so nearly says something really radical about sexuality, and how it is and always must be shaped by culture in profound ways. But then it doesn’t. I fully recognize that many—most—people won’t care as much as I did, or at all. But for those that do—for those who are as excited as I am to hear the language of Soween’s longing, the weird, intimate ache of being in love with your best friend and being prevented from doing anything about it not by outside oppression or familial disapproval (in itself a departure from the usual cliché) but just your own agonizing teenage weirdness—well, now you know.
But like I said. I realise that won’t matter quite so much to most people. The ambition is exciting, the structure is clever and effective, the world-building is engrossing, and it’s all anchored by a fantastic performance from an exciting young actor. Just don’t get your hopes too high for the end.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan