The latest show at The Old Vic is the dystopian vision of Alan Ackybourn – The Divide. It depicts a future world in which men and women must live separately due to a plague that has ridden the world, making men a ‘vulnerable’ species. The so-called ‘divide’ is the gap between the north, where the infected men are, and the south, where the play is set. Everything changed and regressed after the plague and a new date system marks the years since the catastrophe, highlighting the totality of the new belief system: an extreme conservatism. The play has taints of a Malthusian check- a systematic wiping out of the population.
We see this world through the eyes of a child, Soween (Erin Doherty) who recounts her school life from eight. At 11 girls are deemed a danger to men and must be clothed fully in black, with a face covering. In writing his play, Ackybourn talked of highlighting something that he feels is common to extremist religions – the tendency to place blame on women and the desire they cause men to have. We hear snippets condemning Eve Soween’s performance is phenomenal, with minute gradations as she reaches adulthood making her ageing a believable transformation. `the moments when she works through her feelings of love and consequent pain are touching and profound.
Furthermore, the set by Laura Hopkins is spectacular. With seamlessly interchanging levels, we see beautiful swimming, an overpowering court case and a dazzling colourful bedroom when Soween is shown the wonder of colour for the first time. No two scenes are the same really creating a sense of adventure as the girl grows up.
It is a shame then, that in the midst of strong acting and creative set (not to mention Christopher Nightingale’s lovely compositions) Ackybourn’s script drags the play down. The concept is strong: a world in which women self-subsist, but still under the control of men who they must do everything not to ‘tempt.’ The end result of the execution however seems to be a simple transcription of a man’s understanding of women being oppressed. The girls discover a sense of ‘liberation’ through a discovery of clothes and make-up, which although Soween suggests is shallow, still seems a superficial way to represent the way a woman becomes an independent woman. The simple irony becomes tiring quickly, constantly drawing us back to the differences between our liberal society and the more conservative view of sexual morality we see here. The script is twice as long as it should be, with some entertaining scenes, but is ultimately quite laboured, lacking in profundity.
The Divide is entertaining therefore from an aesthetic perspective: its enjoyable to watch and draws the occasional chuckle. Unfortunately, however, its praise must be limited to this as it fails to add significantly to the feminist dialogue which it is entering into.
The Divide played at The Old Vic until 10th February 2018. For more information, please see www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2018/the-divide