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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.