The Divide - a note from Matthew Warchus

The Divide Part 1  
by Alan Ayckbourn 
performed by The Old Vic 
directed by Annabel Bolton 

Photograph by marc marnie 


The Divide is an extraordinary new work by one of the UK’s greatest storytellers, Alan Ayckbourn. Unfolding over two parts, The Divide is a tale for our own turbulent times that unflinchingly examines a dystopian society of brutal repression, forbidden love and seething insurrection.
A century from now England is hit by a deadly contagion. Society is decimated as contact between men and women becomes fatal. Under the dictates of an elusive Preacher, an unthinkable solution is enforced. Separated by the Divide, the adult survivors are segregated by gender with men wearing white as a mark of their purity and women – still infected – clothed in black as a sign of their sin.
Decades later, brother and sister Elihu and Soween are growing up learning the ways of their new, tightly controlled society. As they begin to glimpse the cracks in the system, Elihu falls for the daughter of two radical mothers, risking fatal disease and threatening to ignite a bloody revolution. The Divide is a searing vision of a future defined by brutal repression, forbidden love and seething insurrection.
Spread across two separate parts, The Divide is a hugely engaging and constantly surprising story of a society that segregates – but is still recognisable.
Alan Ayckbourn has produced 80 internationally acclaimed stage works including Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests and A Chorus of Disapproval. His plays are regularly performed all over the world, and have been translated into more than 35 languages.
The Divide receives its premiere in a co-production between The Old Vic, London, Edinburgh International Festival and Karl Sydow, directed by Annabel Bolton, an associate director of The Old Vic.

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.

Matthew Warchus

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