The Divide - a note from Matthew Warchus
I grew up mostly in Yorkshire. Scarborough was relatively close and so throughout the 1980s I probably saw every new Ayckbourn play in its original production. It’s what developed my love of in-the-round theatre and my huge admiration for Ayckbourn as an unflinching tragi-comic writer and also as a great experimenter in form.
Crazily, I’ve only so far managed to direct his epic trilogy The Norman Conquests (here at The Old Vic in fact) but I certainly intend to do more. Therefore, when Annabel Bolton drew my attention to his latest writing experiment (yes, at 78 he is still experimenting!) I was immediately intrigued.
The Divide was not written as ‘Ayckbourn’s latest play’ but rather as a kind of massive diary characterised by a handful of solo voices. It is an ‘archive’ of a dystopian future described predominantly from the point of view of a young girl growing up. The young person’s perspective gives it a naïvité which is sometimes humorous, sometimes foolish and sometimes heart-wrenching.
Set in a world recovering from a plague, where men and women now endure forced permanent separation, the story considers not only the many incompatibilities between the sexes but also an urge, here revolutionary, to bridge the divide. The many binary themes in the story also include the divisions between parents and children, the old and the new, the past and the present, colour and monochrome, and tyranny and freedom. What’s compelling is the ‘upside-down’ picture of a society where all our automatic norms are illicit curiosities or taboos… Bertolt Brecht called this the Alienation Effect, whereby what’s familiar is made strange to make us look harder at the things we take for granted.
Annabel’s urge to realise a staged version of this utterly unique Ayckbourn text is typical of our Baylis Directors (each season has its own early career ‘Baylis Director’, Annabel is the third following Max Webster and Joe Murphy) who are generally irrepressibly adventurous in their choices which is something I cherish and aim to support.
The Old Vic is evolving into a theatre with a much wider range of work for a much wider audience. Projects like The Divide are very much on the more audacious end of the spectrum, with classic revivals occupying the opposite end. But in between we now regularly programme an array of family shows, musicals, new writing and dance. This is made possible by the vision and generosity of our varied philanthropic supporters — our Principal Partner RBC, Previews Partner PwC and, on this production, the invaluable support of Bloomberg and the Mohamed S. Farsi Foundation.