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Old Vic, London

The Divide takes the form of a dystopian bildungsroman following the teenage Soween Clay (Erin Doherty) as she grows up in a society where women and men are kept apart. The female society has strict rules about behaviour and champions a restrictive deportment tract called the ‘Book of Certitude’. Erin Doherty puts in a marvellous performance of a timid yet astute girl who rebels against the dogmatic laws of the book.

The play focuses on the female society; we hear about the male society north of the divide mainly through negative rumours. The adults of the female society don these black Amish-like costumes, similar to those worn in The Handmaid’s Tale replete with bonnets and also visors, which make their faces featureless and terrifying; it’s very reminiscent of the blank faces in the music video of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’. Kest (Thusitha Jayasundera) is Soween’s mother or ‘mapa’ and acts on the local council, so Soween alongside her brother Elihu (Jake Davies), all living under the same roof with their other mother or ‘mama’ Chayza (Finty Williams), have to carefully conceal their illegal artistic or self-expressive endeavours.

Soween’s pubescence is a sad tale of bullying. The other girls in a club called ‘The Falcons’ take advantage of her naivety and often ostracise her at school. Erin Doherty exhibits all the changing emotions of a young girl, teary-eyed but strident, who slowly realises that she wants to forge her own path outside of rigid indoctrination. Jake Davies also puts in a brilliant performance as Elihu, perfecting even those minute mannerisms of an uncertain and innocent boy, but also showing how he confidently outgrows these and becomes a passionate artist. He is influenced to sketch portraits largely by Rudgrin’s contraband picture of Botticelli’s Venus, naked and buxom, emerging seductively from a clamshell.

Elihu’s tutor Rudgrin (Richard Katz) traverses the divide on a daily basis in order to teach Elihu about the ways of men. The rather derogatory impressions the sexes have of each other provides much comedy: men imagine women to be prone to fits of hysteria, women imagine men to be bloodthirsty savages. There’s a grain of truth in the criticism of men since in Rudgrin’s account they seem all to be fuelled by sex, jazz, alcohol and violence. Katz does well at portraying a man who is keen to encourage Elihu’s drawing but also fearful of straying from typical teaching practices. In addition, Martin Quinn, who plays Elihu’s boyhood friend Fergo, has a commendable skill in shifting accents from thick Scottish to posh English as he plays various characters north of the divide.

At nearly four hours this might seem to be an exhausting marathon of a play. However, its long immersion in this dystopian world, displaying how various socio-political upheavals work against the barbaric status quo, makes for a richly rewarding show. Elihu and a local girl Gisella have a secret and dangerous romantic connection, meeting behind the curtain of a waterfall, which takes on symbolic meaning for hidden desires. There’s inventive use of the set to show the wet, glistening and almost dream-like cavern behind the waterfall. During scene changes text is projected onto giant screens to visualise Elihu’s and Soween’s diary entries as this montage of their lives plays out.

The music of the orchestra and choir directed by Will Stuart bring extra spice to the emotional swells of the play. Weruche Opia as Gisella does well in portraying a shy girl evolving into an outspoken and defiant woman, which is part of the running theme of people discovering they are individuals, through welcoming colour and excitement into their lives. Just like the warring factions being quelled by romance in Romeo and Juliet, so does romance work in The Divide to break down political barriers and destroy controlling myths, instigating a new age of liberation.

  • Drama
  • By Alan Ayckbourn
  • Director Annabel Bolton
  • Cast includes: Lucy Briggs-Owen, Jake Davies, Buffy Davis, Erin Doherty, Thusitha Jayasundera, Richard Katz, Joanne McGuinness, Sophie Melville, Clare Lawrence Moody, Weruche Opia, Martin Quinn, Letty Thomas, Finty Williams
  • Old Vic, London
  • Until 10th February 2018

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