London Theatre, ‘The Ferryman’ Directed by Sam Mendes

Victoria and Albert Museum, London Christmas 2017, caroling

Enjoying my week in Oxford and London, UK just before Christmas, I was happy to see the town in fancy dress, perhaps even more so than New York City. Especially in the West End, London shimmers with lights and sparkles with hope. I discovered why Bridget Jones bemoaned eating 40 or so mince pies (pastries that are like amuse bouches) a mouthful of deliciousness that you can’t just have one of. And we continually treated ourselves to the mulled wine (Oxford pubs serve this) and Christmas punch (in London proper) a heated wine with herbs and various liquors which takes off the chill while you are walking rain dampened London pavement.

London, mulled wine, Christmas punch, UK
Mulled wine (Oxford) or the fancier version with additional liquors known as Christmas punch (London upscale) is delicious and reviving for cold walks in England’s damp weather.
Oxford, UK, Christmas markets, Christmas 2017
Modern and 600 years of history in Oxford streets where Christmas markets are in full swing selling: homemade preserves, chutneys and curds (The Cherry Tree), Palestinian ceramics, fried polenta chips, gnocchi, sausage and knockwurst sandwiches, roast pork, handmade novelty items and crafts from the area, unique toys, spiked apple cider and mulled wine. (Carole Di Tosti)

The shows that happened to be in town when friends and I traveled to London were many. Musicals abound. There is Christmas fare for families. Harry Potter and The Cursed Child is setting children’s faces ablaze with wonder. And Hamilton recently opened with lines going around and around. On his Instagram page, I noted that Lin Manuel Miranda was in town the same week we were, which probably contributed to the lines. Oh, to get a glimpse! Was there a lottery? Or cast entertainment beforehand? Knowing Lin, absolutely!

London
Christmas decorations on a private shop for men’s wear; you must ring for an appointment-fitting. (Carole Di Tosti)

I have seen Hamilton 7 times, 5 times with the original cast in NYC, at the Public twice, and on Broadway. By happenstance I saw Lin Manuel Miranda workshop the production’s evolution at Vassar in 2012 when it was Hamilton Mixtape. Afterward, when I spoke to Leslie Odom Jr. about this at his guest singing appearance for the Morris Jumel Mansion autumn festival a few years later (he was inhabiting the role of Aaron Burr to accolades) he told me that he, too, was in the audience at Vassar. So was Ron Chernow, whom I recognized having read his exceptional biography of Hamilton in 2004. The three of us were “In the Room where it Happened” before Lin conceived of the fabulous song in Aaron Burr’s bedroom at the Morris Jumel Mansion a year later.

London, Christmas 2017
Christmas tree close up of the men’s shop where you may go in and have some Christmas punch and mince pies while they fit you. (just guessing) (Carole Di Tosti)

As Ron Chernow waited to speak to Lin Manuel, I boldly walked up to Ron and told him that he would sell a lot of books when the show went to Broadway. This was before the path of the show was determined and before some songs had been written, i.e. “The Room Where It Happened.” And indeed, the artistic director was adamant against even my adoring review of what I saw that day. All was “hush-hush!” Hamilton was waiting in the wings to evolve from Hamilton Mixtape. And what resulted, I do believe even stunned Lin Manuel Miranda, not taking away from his prodigious efforts and those of Alex Lacamore and the cast to make the show an unparalleled success, which some individual, older critics in the US begrudge. I don’t think they get the majesty and brilliance of Hamilton. I am a huge fan.

London, Green Park, Caviar House, Christmas Punch, London Christmas 2017
We made friends with the general manager who makes a delicious Christmas punch. We went back twice. London-Green Park stop. (Carole Di Tosti)

Now, it’s 2018. Ron Chernow continues to sell his biography of Hamilton to a London theatre crowd And well they should purchase it; Miranda based most of the musical on Chernow’s writings. My prophecy is still unfolding. Surely, the book will continue to generate sales as the production tours globally and the film eventually screens when its last edits are made.

Oxford, pub, Oxford Christmas 2017
One of the more beautiful and historic pubs in Oxford. Pub food is better than diner food in UK towns and cities. This is no comparison to US bars. (Carole Di Tosti)

Friends and I chose tickets we could get at the last minute. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Hamilton tickets are pricey. So we decided upon The Ferryman, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, Ink, and Barber Shop Chronicles which was at the National Theatre. As it turned out, our choices in two instances were spot on. Whether our exhaustion after hitting the ground running from Oxford to London finally caught up with us toward the latter part of the week, the last two productions proved problematic.

The Ritz Hotel, London, UK, London Christmas 2017
The Ritz Hotel dressed up in Christmas finery. Green Park tube stop.

And so it went enjoyably with the initial two we saw, the first of which I will review in this post. I thought The Ferryman and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, were gobsmackingly good, and typical of what I anticipated to be superb London Theatre.

Berkley arcade, London Christmas 2017
Berkley arcade, London Christmas 2017

The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth (also wrote Jerusalem), exceptionally directed by Sam Mendes has been described as an epic in its themes about The Troubles. It is indeed epic in its breadth of sweeping emotion, its contrasts of dark and light,  its conflicts that erupt with striking grandeur and spew violent rage and seething silence. Over swirling undercurrents and chasms of grief, the primary characters leap with defensive mechanisms to forget, to submerge raw feelings. They cling to and embrace any joys they can muster. As the arc of development rises toward the denouement, these joys become fewer and fewer.

The Ferryman, Sam Mendes, Jez Butterworth, Will Houston, Niall Wright, The Troubles
(L to R) Niall Wright, Will Houston in ‘The Ferryman’ directed by Sam Mendes, written by Jez Butterworth, (Johan Persson, courtesy of the production, see site)

Emotional drift is the backdrop that reverberates throughout the shock waves of Northern Ireland, County Armagh, 1981, Butterworth’s setting for The Ferryman. It is a land begrudged to British usurpers as vengeance peaks around every blade and stalk of greenery. For some who would farm, swords temporarily have been beaten into plowshares. Nevertheless, bellicosity and primal urges lay subsurface. They can be stirred up by those looking for redemption or death prompted by tribal disagreements laden with guilt.

Butterworth presents doom in the opening salvos of the play. Darkness clarifies. The sinister presence of the IRA leader Muldoon (Stuart Graham) and compromised priest Father Horrigan (Charles Dale) meet to discuss the conundrum. A body has been found in the bog. It is Seamus Carney, Quinn Carney’s brother. He had gone missing for a decade. Clearly, the man had been murdered, a bullet hole through the back of his head. His  body had been consumed forever by the bog, until it wasn’t. On one macabre moonlit night, it had risen like a hulking ghost to haunt the murderers and exert its power through kin to secure a fitting revenge. Thus, with the atmosphere broiling of promised bloodshed, Father Horrigan must deliver the loathsome news to brother Quinn Carney (Will Houston) and wife Caitlin Carney (Sarah Greene) that Seamus has been found in recognizable glory. The bog preserved him whole. It is an unfortunate reckoning for those who dispatched him like subalterns ensnared in colonialism’s sedate barbarisms.

This is the gruesomeness of Northern Ireland in 1981 when the struggles cry out for retribution to enforce Republican rights and autonomies. This was the time when Bobby Sands was in the midst of his 66-day hunger strike which was to end in his death, followed by additional hunger strikes which ended in 9 more deaths. It was the time when you were either a supporter or a traitor, or became invisible and melded with the land. Nevertheless, as the political forces ranged they determined one’s stance. Either you were complicit with those who risked their lives for freedom, or you were a masking coward, who stood back and watched in pretense, remaining “un-involved” while surreptitiously aiding the enemy.

These categorical role antitheses, polar opposite political postures are drawn on the surface of the play. However the political maps are secured, we understand that hearts side with hearts. As the story arc indicates, un-involvement is a brutal impossibility. Whether one acknowledges it or not, to live in Northern Ireland is to be immersed in the brawling conflict. There are two avenues and choices are made; the signs are omnipresent and most know where their neighbors stand.

The Ferryman, Jez Butterworth, Sam Mendes, Gielgud Theatre, Will Houston, Sarah Greene
Sarah Greene, Will Houston in ‘The Ferryman’ by Jez Butterworth, directed by Sam Mendes at Gielgud Theatre (Johan Persson, courtesy of the production, see site)

We meet the protagonists Caitlin and Quinn who enter the empty Carney kitchen playfully and enact a sensual dance. This alluring fun between a man and woman is mysterious. They are archetypal lovers, revealed later to be Seamus’ brother and his wife, Caitlin Carney. Both have the most to loose and gain with the deliverance of Seamus Carney’s body. In their blindfolded dance (symbolic) we note an ineffable, unfathomable bond. Perhaps they share a longing for closure about Seamus’ death, a conjoined sadness, memories of happier times. Yet we intuit an affection worthy of partnership, only to discover their love possibly has never been consummated. Because of this perhaps such a physical union may be all the more desirable.

As the priest finds his way to the Carney household, the activity of life proceeds and they joyfully conclude the harvest season. We meet the Carney family and their friends who gather in the kitchen to rejoice that their labors have brought forth visible goodness. In the “horn of plenty” scenes we appreciate the raucous celebration  as a natural and wholesome connection to the land. The crops have ripened to their greatest yield and have been plucked. The seasonal cycles are healthfully and refreshingly balanced. Friends and family join in harmony sharing the fruits of their labor in a homely, comforting scene.

London't West End, theatre district, Christmas 2017, London, UK
London’s West End, theatre district, Christmas 2017 (Carole Di Tosti)

The Carneys have birthed an enthusiastic brood of children ranging in ages from 5 to married with a child. Indeed, a 10 month old LIVE baby makes an appearance and stuns with radiant beauty and wide-eyed, well-behaved sweetness.  And when each of the Carney children come down the stairs one after the other, again and again, the effect is humorous. We wonder at the couple’s faith in humankind to produce such a brood of strapping, gorgeous children. They must have great courage to raise them in these times which try Northern Irish souls, souls which feed the maw of the revolution and spread blood throughout every bog every town that can boast that their folks disappeared or were torn, battered and demised by civil strife.

When Quinn’s wife (initially we thought Caitlin was his wife) Mary comes down the steps, she is taciturn and immovable. Her demeanor is vacant, dim. We discover the reason she gives for this is that she is sickly, which causes her to be reclusive, a vanishing presence in the household. Perhaps she is recovering from her child-bearing years. Do we believe this? Her oldest daughter does not. Nevertheless, the remoteness runs to a darkness of the soul that she suppresses and later reveals in an aria beautifully parsed toward the play’s conclusion.

In a rollicking, joyful dinner, we note with amazement the family and in later kitchen scenes (there is one set, the sprawling Irish kitchen) they are joined by friends. There are the Carney siblings Michael, Honor, Mercy, Nunu, Shena, and JJ. There are the adults whose revelations of time and place run to deep oceans of sadness and self-harm caused by circumstances they cannot control because civil torments tear up the land and society. Farmer Dad Quinn has a secret past known to Muldoon. Young Aunt Caitlin runs the household while Mary (Catherine McCormack) remains alone harboring secrets and mucking around her bedroom. There is old Uncle Pat (Mark Lambert) whose sense of history resides in myths.  And there is the wistful, visionary prophetic Aunt Maggie Far Away (Maureen Beattie) who tells of the violent elfin wars that somehow parallel the present Troubles and forebode new dangers to be heaped upon their heads.

Maureen Beattie, Mark Lambert, The Ferryman, Sam Mendes, Jez Butterworth, Gielgud Theatre, London, UK
Maureen Beattie, Mark Lambert in ‘The Ferryman’ by Jez Butterworth, directed by Sam Mendes, (Johan Persson courtesy of the production, see the site)

And for the historical reality, there is Aunt Patricia Carney who is emotionally haunted by the death of her brother in the Easter rebellion, a memory as alive as today and impossible to reconcile. Her bitterness drips with ironic humor continually; and as she relates she doesn’t know who Quinn’s wife is anymore; indeed, it could be Caitlin.  We are grateful for her clear, grounded presence though the children find her discussion of the injustice of The Troubles exasperating. They have not yet gathered to their hearts the violence that seethes throughout their culture and society.

Finally, there is Quinn’s and Mary’s nephew Oisin, Caitlin’s son, a young and beautiful teenager orphaned of his father. Seamus the missing has blown an emotional hole through his and his mother’s hearts. These are bleeding wounds that Quinn attempts to staunch by caring for them as his own, while Mary suffers in silence upstairs. Nevertheless, with the missing, there is no finality. Daily the questions of Seamus Carney’s whereabouts and what happened to him float like unspoken filaments in their memories. These they cover over with hackneyed or jovial conversation or deeper poetic and mythic references that proclaim truths hidden beneath the surface of homely interaction.

Gielgud Theatre, Jez Butterworth, Sam Mendes, The Ferryman, Ivan Kaye
Ivan Kaye and the company of ‘The Ferryman’ directed by Sam Mendes, written by Jez Butterworth (Johan Persson, courtesy of the production, see the site)

For example during the scene of motley gathering, there is discussion of the ferryman who spans life and death. He is the arbiter and controller of dead souls who seek peace, souls banned from passage on his boat for they have not been properly buried. Such souls wander on the shores of the river unable to cross to the land of the dead. Wanderers howl in pain seeking an implacable rest never given to them. This is the torment of the spirit’s soul, the torment of the family’s souls for their missing loved ones. Such is Seamus Carney’s torment.

Reference to Seamus’ disappearance brings a pall to the kitchen conversations. We understand that Seamus and the family cannot  have peace until he is properly found and buried. The irony is we know the conclusion of a chapter of savagery is coming to its finality. However, we watch as the family still hovers in yearning in darkness and light. What will happen after Seamus is finally buried in his proper resting place? Will revenge be sought?

The undercurrents remain hidden as the family raucously cheer on their successful efforts, dance, drink, tell stories and more in various celebratory scenes. The churning lives and friendly gatherings which include the Cocorans, and Tom Kettle (Ivan Kaye is outstanding as the slow-witted Englishman orphaned as a child, raised by an Irish family) intimate no abysses of darkness. For in this brilliance of light and life, all is well. But the news must come when it comes.

Catherine McCormack, The Ferryman, Jez Butterworth, Sam Mendes, Gielgud Theatre, London, UK
Catherine McCormack in ‘The Ferryman’ directed by Sam Mendes, written by Jez Butterworth (Johan Persson, courtesy of the production, see the site)

The play fuels the darkness soon enough as Butterworth slowly unravels the mysteries surrounding Seamus’ death, Quinn’s secrets, Mary’s vanishing presence and Caitlin’s fondness for Quinn with no hoped for closure. With immediate, powerful truth leveled by the conclusion, we see what has been hidden and how that information gives rise to manifesting the latent nature of Quinn Carney.

There is a supreme irony that the climactic scene is one all have been waiting for when Muldoon shows up and revels in the pure clarity of his justified brutality years before. It is at this key revelation that tragedy occurs. Innocents misled by the tide of times are swept up by their inability to make reasoned choices. What was thought to bring closure evolves into additional loss and retribution. At a pivotal moment Quinn Carney seeks the depths of his own soul and unleashes the ancient primal, tribal ethic which demands an “eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth.” Forgiveness becomes an impossibility of bloodlines, the verbal domicile of masking priests and reverends, the untoward retreat of widows and old Aunts. Forgiveness is not the portion of fighting men forced to take sides.

Revenge feeds off itself. With the series of acts which began before Seamus Carney’s murder and will continue beyond the Peace Agreement which occurs years’ later, Butterworth’s characters sculpt a monument to destruction with their own miry human clay. Washed in Irish/English blood, it is a memorial to intolerance, injustice and economic oppression which can never be answered by bloodshed that stains the land during The Troubles or stains any land soaked with the entrails of civil strife.

Embankment, Thames River, National Theatre, London, Christmas 2017
The bridge by The Embankment, walking over the Thames River to the National Theatre (Carole Di Tosti)
The National Theatre, London, The Embankment
The National Theatre walkabout on the River Thames, with London in the distance.

Butterworth’s play shepherded by the able sensibility of Mendes and the emotionally solid cast portrayals illuminates the poignance and helplessness of a family in duress. We watch stunned at this family that measures out their lives’ suffering through everpresent loss and the aftermath of sectarian violence which spreads chaos and injustice without surcease. The production is a must-see for the acting, the staging and set design (how are 20 people able to move onstage with fluidity?), and the wrangling of an absolutely adorable goose and rabbits which Tom Kettle brings.

The themes leave one considering. Not only must we bare up each other’s losses, but we must attempt to understand each other’s rooted sorrows. This in order to prepare for a day of reckoning which comes for everyone. For the protagonists of The Ferryman, their day of reckoning comes after they have been lulled to believe they’ve reconciled grief, which they learn they haven’t. The reckoning descends swiftly and starkly and we are shocked by our own wrong assumptions because of our dim-wittedness to understand the stakes. As a fitting addendum to further shift our unsettled emotions, Aunt Maggie Carney Far Away provides the last line of the play, symbolic, searing, foreboding.

If you are in London, this is one to see. It runs until 19 May 2018 at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Ave, Soho, London W1D 6AR. You may purchase tickets here.

 

‘THE DIVIDE’ by Alan Ayckbourn

Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, Scotland
Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, Scotland (Carole Di Tosti)

One of the finest pleasures in traveling to a locale one has not visited before is in the interest of witnessing a renowned playwright’s history in the making, his radical shift from well-worn success toward a risky endeavor which might not be received or understood. Alan Ayckbourn’s prodigious and prolific body of work has been solidified for our times because he has found a ready and willing audience.

Alan Ayckbourne, Edinburgh International Festival, The Divide
Alan Ayckbourne speaks about ‘The Divide’ courtesy of a promotional trailer The Edinburgh International Film Festival (courtesy of the EIF site)

There are not many writers who would try their fans’ patience and tastes in a crucible of newness and novelty. Creating a work with vastly different settings, little easy wit or humor, austere sci-fi tone, innovations in dramatic technique in a scary departure from one’s  previously successful canon? This is not for the writerly faint-of-heart. Did anyone suggest Ayckbourne is faint-of-heart? Not I, after seeing The Divide.

Ayckbourne’s adventurous desire to evolve as a writer is laudable. He has been wise in his choice to present his latest work, which is a galaxy away from his profound sardonic, human comedies, at the most popular of European festivals. And he has done this at a time when this eclectic festival is celebrating its 70th amazing and innovative anniversary.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Logo on the Box Office doors of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Carole Di Tosti)
Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
Box Office on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Carole Di Tosti)
Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Edinburgh International Festival, 70 year anniversary of the Edinburgh Fringe
Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Edinburgh International Festival, 70th year anniversary (Carole Di Tosti)
Adam Smith, Scottish Enlightenment, Royal Mile, Edinburgh International Festival
Statue of Adam Smith on the Royal Mile, Scottish thinker/philosopher who wrote’ Wealth of the Nations’ (1776) that continues to influence global financial market pundits today. (Carole Di Tosti)
Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland, the Royal Mile, Edinburgh International Festival
Entrance to the Castle road, Edinburgh, Scotland, the Royal Mile, Edinburgh International Festival (Carole Di Tosti)
Scottish Castle, Mary Queen of Scots the Royal Mile, the Honors, Edinburgh, Scotland,
the Scottish Castle retaining the history of Scotland, the Civil Wars, Mary Queen of Scots chambers, the Grand Hall, the Honors, military museums, and more, Edinburgh, Scotland, the Royal Mile (Carole Di Tosti)
Old Town, the Royal Mile, Edinburgh International Festival, 70th year celebration
Getting into the history of Scotland, fans come seriously dressed. Edinburgh International Festival, Old Town, the Royal Mile, Edinburgh, Scotland (Carole Di Tosti)

The Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2017 began in 1949. Since then it has swelled to its current amazement.  Attended each August by global citizens who revel in the beauty of the Royal Mile, the Scottish castle at one end and the Holyrood Palace at the other, the hairy-wild pubs, reasonable Scotspeople, thistles, bagpipes, kilts, haggis, lochs, tartans, shortbread, this festival exemplifies at heart the frenetic energy of youth and family, and the peppery vitality and wisdom of older individuals.

Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Royal Mile, The World's End, cornetto trilogy, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Edgar Wright
A typical pub on The Royal Mile, Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival. There is a fabulously funny film of the same name, the third in the cornetto trilogy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost which I reviewed a few year’s ago. It’s by Edgar Wright whom I met at HIFF. This pub is appropriate for a minor theme of ‘The Divide.’ (Carole Di Tosti)
Pinnies, Edinburgh, Scotland
Pinnies, one of the finest home-made shortbread shops in Edinburgh, Scotland (Carole Di Tosti)
Scotland, thistles, Scottish National Flower
Live thistles, a decorative floral fancy and the national flower of Scotland (Carole Di Tosti)

Artists and creatives young and old hail from the farthest corners of the planet to share in the festivities and present their crazy, fun, revelatory artistry expressed in a multitude of forms. Audience and artists alike are there to drink the spiritual potions of life’s goodness and wellness. Is there a better place to premiere one’s groundbreaking work amidst such effervescent pleasures?

Royal Mile, Edinburgh Fringe Festival Edinburgh International Festival, Scotland
Artists hawking their show in Old Town on the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Edinburgh International Festival (Carole Di Tosti)
Royal Mile, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Edinburgh International Festival,
Attracting attention? You bet. It’s part of the frolic and fun.  Old Town, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Edinburgh Fringe Festival/Edinburgh International Festival (Carole Di Tosti)
Death City, Old Town, Royal Mile, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Edinburgh International Festival, Scotland
A Die-In to promote the show ‘Death City,’ Old Town, Royal Mile, Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Edinburgh International Festival (Carole Di Tosti)

Thus, Ayckbourne’s The Divide was a dual celebration: 1) of the festival as a sustainable artifact exemplifying all that is unique about an exceptional artistic global community, 2) of the playwright’s launch into creative wilds where he could explore a multi-genre approach to an intriguing subject with mammoth metaphoric implications: a doomsday scenario that is portentous and relevant to our own culture today.

The Hub Box Office, Edinburgh International Festival, the Royal Mile, Old Town, Edinburgh, Scotland
The Hub Box Office for the Edinburgh International Festival, the Royal Mile, Old Town Edinburgh, Scotland (Carole Di Tosti)
The King's Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival The Divide, Alan Ayckbourne
The King’s Theatre where ‘The Divide’ premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival (Carole Di Tosti)

Was his endeavor a success? Does the clock tick the next second and the next forging onward? The question is how and why this work succeeded when, if you attempted to explain what Ayckbourne was doing, figuring in the calculus of his other 75 or so successful plays, you would surely have predicted at best lukewarm critical and audience reception and at worst, frustrated audience walk-outs .

Ayckbourne’s presumptions with The Divide Parts I and 2 would creep out even risk-prone, uber wealthy  Broadway producers: I’m just sayin’! It is three hours long over two days; that’s four acts with two intermissions. There is music and a singing choir, though the music is haunting, atmospheric, atonal at times. It immerses one in a frightening oppression that suggests there is no escape from the dire dread of events. It conveys an irony of tone and fog that the characters are compelled to drift through. Indeed, the music propels the empathy we experience for the characters as if we are experiencing the same terrors they experience. The music does not contain your light, upbeat melodies that soar and float you on the wind to be easily dismissed and forgotten later. Precisely.

The cast is large; there are weebly visual projections, minimal sets in two stark palettes for the mainstay of the production (black and white-the colors relate to the symbolic themes, which the less astute theater-goer will miss), a small orchestra. Structurally, the play comprises a convoluted, opaque “dystopian” plot, developed rimarily through the protagonist’s novelesque narration and commentary by a few other minor characters. And unfortunately as if that weren’t enough to tank The Divide, which requires one’s time investment of six hours over two days, has been diminished by droll critics to be The Handmaid’s Tale meets Romeo and Juliet. Whaattttt?

The Divide, Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Scotland
Pre-show curtain, ‘The Divide’ the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland (Carole Di Tosti)

I disagree. Ayckbourne has created a work that is rich in irony, humor and chilling resolution. If one is able to put aside self-righteous ego outrage at its correlation to the current state of political, governmental connivance in the UK, US, Western Europe, and the rebellious matrix of religious and social narrowness that has been propped up by the average malevolent, exploitative terrorist (whether radical ISIS/ISIL/Taliban, etc.  or US bred white supremacist), one will find in it much to extol.

The play drives the audience to remain focused and alert while delivering concussive blows upon the main characters with whom we become inexorably attached as they navigate an alienating culture and society without the redeeming necessities of entertainments, the arts or romantic love from members of the opposite sex.

Heavily interlaced with narration and exemplifying scenes to clarify, the action wends slowly and rapidly as time moves when much happens and nothing happens. The through-line is raw emotion. It is our own reaction to the events, to the bleak, doom-laden setting, to the emotionally deadened characters and to the youthful and contagious hope and determination to embrace immortality whether through spiritual belief or lasting historical record that the protagonists’ actions foment.

Erin Doherty, Weruche Opia, The Divide, Edinburgh International Festival
Erin Doherty (facing the camera) Weruche Opia in ‘The Divide’ at Edinburgh International Festival (photo courtesy of the production and this site)

The opening of the play, is an introductory history lecture referencing how the country (England or any western European or first world country in the future) eventually transcended the frightening era when it was “necessary” to segregate men and women and only allow them to establish relationships with members of the same sex for safety and health. A professor initiates the lecture and plays a video tape of an elderly woman telling her story.

The action flashes back to the past and the woman on the video tape dissolves into the darkness as the lights come up to shine on a youthful Soween (the old woman in the film). The young Soween relates the journey of her life with the principal intention to reveal how her family initiated the revolution which eventually delivers the individuals in the bleak and austere society from the plague. The contagion has forced the government (“administration”) to create “the divide” which forbids interaction of any kind between men and women. If there is to be interaction, women must wear a hazmat type head mask to guard against contagion.

Soween, is portrayed by the incredible Erin Doherty who inhabits a range of emotions with great moment-to-moment feeling and depth. She brilliantly draws us into the post apocalyptic, portentous setting. She discloses how her family operates in a state of suspended life. She enthusiastically elucidates the turning point and beyond where she and her brother perform exploits of belief and imagination. Gradually, through reportage which sets up scene events we come to understand how human impulses embracing life and truth unravel an “administrative” social engineering “experiment” that for a time succeeds in keeping the entire populace oppressed, controlled and overwhelmed by autonomy-killing, soul nullifying folkways.

The folkways have become living creatures in themselves, multiplying fear and dogmas of behavioral perfection as a cultural ideal for men and women, itself a hazardous plague and contagion.  On the surface the mores create a social matrix that pits everyone against each other and consequently snares and stifles human emotional response and empathy. Especially, amongst Soween’s classmates we understand how these controlling mores daily energize jealousy, brutality, abuse and torment. Below the surface, the mores infect and wipe-out those who allow their own souls to become infected.

Erin Doherty, The Divide, Edinburgh International Festival
Erin Doherty (center) and cast members in ‘The Divide’ at the Edinburgh International Festival, Scotland (photo courtesy of the production and this site)

It is only when victimized, love-starved Soween is shepherded by Giella (a superb Weruche Opia) that hope arrives. Giella presents her with an ancient, historic novel, Jane Eyre. Through its reading and identification with Jane, Soween mentors Eyre’s resilience, inner strength and courage. She is inspired to love Giella in a sustaining hope and determination, which answers her yearning to make an authentic, loving connection unachievable with her family and tribe of so-called “friends.”

The development of the storyline is effected by Soween’s narration and supplemented by visual projections in white against a darkened screen. The projections, documentary-style identify dates, ages of Soween, her brother Elihu and other salient information and serve to move along her reportage and segue into elucidating events.  The arc of plot points journey from Soween and her brother’s tween years and conclude with events that take her to Soween’s eighteenth year and Elihu’s sixteenth.

During this tide of times the jettisoning of the doomsday culture gradually evolves and we are thrilled to witness how her family becomes the fortuitous linchpin that pulls down the artificial matrix of folkways. Who says that one or two or three individuals cannot overcome the noxious exemplars of humanity who would devastate through malfeasance and incompetence the finest core of what makes people entirely wonderful, creative, imaginative and worthwhile?

Royal Mile, Old Town, Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival
Walking to the Royal Mile, Old Town, Edinburgh International Festival/Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 70th anniversary celebration (Carole Di Tosti)

As one key theme Ayckbourne presents the hypothesis: if various humans, who to retain power, become fearful and genocidal, the inevitable counterpoint will occur. is Others will rise up to initiate redemption and release in a stunningly glorious display of sacrificial truth. In the “destruction” is the reaffirmation, recreation and rebirth, but only in those buffeted by the matrix that has been created by the fearful power-hungry. These misguided social engineers, because they are on the wrong side of truth, cannot partake of that redemptive beauty and thus, face oblivion.

Soween describes her family and how it non-functions. She has a younger brother Elihu (Jake Davies in a masterful performance), the venerated male who must be protected from contagion by women, principally contracted through sexual and romantic contact or any contact for that matter. So in due season, he will be sent away to the north, estranged from the family forever. Rounding out the family are Ma (Claire Burt is excellent as the haphazard, confounded and resigned mother)  and MaPa (a terrific Thusitha Jayasundera) who is the family’s paternal figure.

MaPa and Ma are partners in raising the children that have been “begotten by artificial insemination” because sexual relations or male/female contact kills off the males. The women are inextricably the carriers or black widows that infect the males who are implacably destroyed. Thus, the men and women remain apart and women must wear masks defacing their beauty and identity to prevent contamination. Men may only partner with men, women with women to sustain the human race and keep men free from the doomsday weapon, women’s genitalia.

The Divide, Alan Ayckbourne, Jake Davies, Weruche Opia, Edinburgh International Festival
Jake Davies, Weruche Opia in ‘The Divide’ by Alan Ayckbourne at Edinburgh International Festival (photo courtesy of the production and this site)

If the tone, music, production values, austere sets and brilliant acting weren’t so oppressively believable (and indeed why do we so readily believe this fantastical plot?) we would be laughing at the intense ironies Ayckbourne has constructed with his setting and the parameter of his “divided” world.  This is the blackest of Ayckbourne, but somewhere in the latent attitude of The Divide he is snickering at us for we are not finding this comical. If we allow ourselves to acknowledge his finger-pointing, we will recognize the ancient Greek mockery (of Aristophanes) and laugh as well. However, the evening I saw the production, few were laughing and the silence was daunting. The audience  awestruck and subdued, though appreciative.

In order to remain uplifted in this time of sorrow, tragedy, guilt, remorse and paternalistic female condemnation, there is the “Book of Certitude” from which all wisdom, cultural law and mores may be gleaned. The political conservatives in the council meetings are adherents of the Book (in it do I hear the will-o-the-wisps of Sharia law, literal Christianity or Wahabism?). The liberals extirpate much of it and resist, we discover, behind the closed doors of their homes. Giella’s is one enlightened family that lives according to its own inner music.

However, MaPa and Ma adhere to The Book of Certitude with great fervor. In their lives there is no room for flexibility or doubt. Ayckbourne’s point is not focusing on religions per se, but any thought process, any line of reasoning and set of mores which allow no questioning but demands unwavering loyalty and adherence to its own brand of group-think. Science and religion may be equally inflexible as we see in The Divide.

Scottish castle, Edinburgh, Scotland
Gargoyles on a building on the castle grounds Edinburgh, Scotland (Carole Di Tosti)

In Ayckbourne’s social construct, doubt is verboten for the conservatives; certainty is the coin of the realm. There is no questioning of The Book of Certitude’s truth. It is doctrinaire dogma, fueling an anaerobic atmosphere. One’s being cannot survive there, let alone thrive. It is this atmosphere and system of belief that eventually undermines the extreme logic of MaPa’s scientific life as a doctor; it snuffs out her adopted world view. When she makes a grave error that causes destruction for others, she cannot forgive herself and commits suicide, the end road of such Book of Certitude adherents. Ayckbourne suggests the death of the soul occurs by unequivocally accepting lies and embracing a path where one refuses to seek the distinction between the two and ultimately finds out not only is there a difference, but lies and error cannot be maintain in living human beings for very long.

How does redemption from this dystopian future evolve for humankind (stated in the play’s opening)? Ayckbourne keeps it simple. It is always the simplistic answers, the ones staring us down daily that are the hardest to recognize. Love, belief in love and emotional relationships are our salvation, even if they cause heart-break, physical suffering or death. The point Ayckbourne makes is very clear. Without such love relationships, we are destroyed: our souls, our emotions, our spiritual beings.

New Town, Firth of Forth, Edinburgh, Scotland
New Town and the Firth of Forth in the distance, Edinburgh, Scotland (Carole Di Tosti)

When an older Elihu and Soween some years later both fall in love with Giella, we imagine the worst for Soween. Giella and Elihu have found one another. In a symbolic moment that is beautifully rendered, they couple in a pool of water in a secret place in the woods. The background light actually turns a different color and such advances in colorful lighting grow stronger from this turning point until the play’s conclusion.

Theirs is a sacred act, a veritable trial by fire in a watery place, though Elihu is accepting that this act of love may even result in his death. He has gained an experience for a lifetime wide enough to face death. He could care less, for he loves. Once again Ayckboune’s ironies abound; in being consumed completely by loving another, we do die to ourselves. For her part Giella believes that all will be right in their love, for love is its own determination, answer and truth. At this point Part 1 of The Divide concludes.

Old Town, the Royal Mile, New Town, Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh, Scotland
The castle and Old Town,the Royal Mile from New Town perspective. Edinburgh International Festival (Carole Di Tosti)

Ayckbourne keeps the plot twists gyrating as events careen in another direction by the third act, the second day of the production. Elihu’s and Giella’s love is the immortal fuse that prompts them toward the sacrificial act which leads to the ultimate discovery  that the contagion is manufactured.  How Ayckbourne gets us to that final revelation is a story-telling convolution that holds the most enthralling scenes and dynamism of the production.

Are they punished for their unlawful and illegal coupling and marriage, a marriage which Giella’s liberal family approves of and a coupling that MaPa deems is Giella’s murder of Elihu? Does Elihu have the plague? The Book of Certitude stipulates he does for the act presupposes contagion regardless of the facts. Their intimacy is discovered; Elihu is whisked away to quarantine so that no one in his family can speak to him. MaPa petitions Giella’s death sentence because she knows what she has been told all these years must be true. Meanwhile, Elihu and Giella know otherwise. That truth is revealed to the culture at large in a final act of whistleblowing that explodes the “divide” because it endangers and exposes the “powers-that-be.”

You will just have to fly to London, UK to The Old Vic and see The Divide or purchase a copy of the play when it is published. It may not be mounted in the US. The production is replete with humor, though one must move beyond the tropes and metaphors relating to the worst mores and actions of global cultures, religions and politics to appreciate how society effects its own self-torments. Ayckbourne suggests this is innately laughable, if one can move past one’s own self-important ego and judgments of others. Of course the play is a clarion call on many levels for our times. But more importantly, in its themes Ayckbourne suggests we must not take ourselves so seriously that certitude conveys our emotions and not the brightest force of all: empathy/ love

The production  will be running from 30 January through 10 February in London at The Old Vic. And it probably will find another home in another country, maybe the US.