There are a lot of bewildering things about Alan Ayckbourn’s six-hour-long dystopian epic, but one of the most bewildering things about it is that it’s happened at all. Yes, Ayckbourn is probably one of the UK’s best-loved playwrights, and certainly one of our most prolific. Yes, Henceforward has proved he can do sci-fi. But The Divide is a rambling, muddled mess, an unlikely addition to the Edinburgh International Festival and an even more surprising candidate for a prearranged transfer to London’s Old Vic.
Like The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s a dystopia where women are subjugated for quasi-religious reasons. They’re blamed for an apocalyptic plague that decimated the UK’s population, so they’re seen as contagious, kept segregated and forced to wear black as a mark of their sin. But its central weirdness is that Ayckbourn has taken it upon himself to write a gender-based dystopia that lacks a single new insight into either gender, or feminism.
It’s a world where both men and women are obliged to live in single-sex relationships, formed more through joyless necessity than passion. Ayckbourn seems to interpret homosexuality as something that both genders will adopt in a pinch, like boys in boarding school. You could just about argue that this view fits in with a very 21st century ideal of sexual fluidity, were it not for the crashing, ‘50s style sexism that thunders through the play. Women’s energies are focused on protesting the lack of mirrors in their houses, or the fact they’re not allowed to wear pretty dresses, not their subjection. And as soon as a man turns up, he unleashes a kind of Lynx effect that sends every woman in sight into an uncontrollable swoon.
It doesn’t ring true, but then Ayckbourn isn’t really interested in the practical logistics of how this absurdly rule-bound world works, or is policed. Instead, he focuses on the endless small humiliations of growing up in an ill-thought-through dystopia.
His play’s flabby, meandering narrative is led by a brother and sister, Elihu and Soween, reading from their teenage diaries. This device’s inevitable lack of urgency is diminished still further by director Annabel Bolton’s firmly unmenacing staging, which fills the set with projections of handwritten pages and wonky drawings, and soundtracks it with utterly gorgeous, utterly insipid live music. Elihu’s storyline focuses on a madly overblown romance with, *gasp!* a woman. Soween fancies women too, but she gets a much, much tougher deal. She’s played with heartbreaking spirit by Erin Doherty, who spends most of the play sobbing, dropped, betrayed or forced to drink urine by the girls she takes a shine to. Then, after all that, she’s forcibly snogged straight by a man she’s met once, in the final fifteen minutes of the play.
The Divide feels like a weedy, retrogressive rip-off of novels like Twilight or The Hunger Games. Ayckbourn has said that it’s designed to get young people into theatre. Fat chance. It’s impossible to get sucked in by the dystopia that feels so suburban, so jolly, so slight. It’s less a page-turner, more an interminable footnote.