Like Verne, Wells and Atwood before him, Sir Alan Ayckbourn embraces sci-fi to explore the human condition with his Edinburgh International Festival debut

In summer 1956, a young Londoner magnetically drawn north by a passion for theatre found himself in Edinburgh. He was in the city as acting stage manager for the impresario Sir Donald Wolfit, working on a production of Austrian playwright Fritz Hochwälder’s The Strong Are Lonely. The Festival was only nine years old, the lad not much older at 17. But Alan Ayckbourn knew he’d found his calling.

As the playright remembers, he was “less than two weeks out of school, passionately in love with theatre, suddenly finding myself in the middle of the Festival with everything happening around me: opera, ballet, legendary international theatre companies, street theatre… Teenage cloud nine!”

Back in London, he was already a regular visitor to The Old Vic. According to the 78-year-old, who was knighted for services to theatre in 1997, that theatre “gave me, back in my youth, my first taste of professional Shakespeare.”

A year after his Edinburgh debut, Ayckbourn was in Scarborough, employed as an actor and stage manager at the Yorkshire seaside town’s Library Theatre. Within two years, disgruntled with the quality of a role he’d been given, he had taken matters into his own hands and written a play, The Square Cat. By the end of the same year, 1959, he had written a second, Love After All.

And he was off. So began the career of perhaps Britain’s most celebrated popular playwright, quite possibly our most prolific and, as some attest, also our most performed. To date, Ayckbourn has written 81 full-length plays – but, remarkably, he has never had a work performed at the Edinburgh International Festival. Until now.

Like its author, The Divide has history: Ayckbourn first unveiled it via a “gala reading” in Scarborough in 2015, and the performed piece was drawn from an 80,000 word prose manuscript. Indeed, also like its author, this new work – which is a co-production with the theatre that inspired him all those years ago, The Old Vic – is hugely ambitious. Even in an edited form, the debut staged version runs to six hours split into two parts. And anyone expecting a domestically set, quick-witted study of relationships from the author of The Norman Conquests and Bedroom Farce is in for a surprise.

As the tagline describes it, The Divide is “a tale for our own turbulent times that unflinchingly examines a dystopian society of brutal repression, forbidden love and seething insurrection. England has been decimated by a deadly contagion. Contact between men and women is fatal. They are forcibly separated by a divide.”

I talk to Ayckbourn via email. Since suffering a stroke in 2006, this is his preferred method of conducting interviews. But his enthusiasm, passion and energy are clearly undimmed, shining as they do through his emails. When I ask him to explain the genesis of the idea behind The Divide, he replies: “It came from various sources, simultaneously, as most of my ideas generally do.

“Chiefly, I wanted to write something that, for once, I couldn’t envisage ever directing myself, on a scale and of a size that with the limited resources at my disposal here in Scarborough was simply beyond my reach. I decided, too, to write something that I hoped would reach a younger generation of theatre-goers. The ‘bridge’ to achieve this appeared to me to be through the medium of sci-fi.”

Still, he clarifies, there is “plenty” of humour in The Divide. “I could never write a play without humour, not now, nor would I wish to. As I often say, you can’t show light without shadow, and vice versa.”

The Divide premieres at a propitious moment, politically and culturally. But Ayckbourn points out that his inspiration came not from the lurch to the right in western democracies. It was “probably in response to the Ebola virus and other pandemics which threaten now and then to wipe out humanity altogether. Fortunately, thanks to our medical skills, they haven’t yet managed it. We’ll probably manage to achieve it ourselves via other means!”

Still, as The Old Vic’s Annabel Bolton, who is directing, points out: “Alan has brilliantly packed The Divide with themes that could easily be interpreted as a reflection of a number of current political and social issues that are at the forefront of many people’s minds right now. But ultimately, I think this is a thrilling, touching story of personal lives and love in a different, dark world that has relevance both for today and historically – if you want it to.

“The wonderful thing, of course, about setting anything in the future or in an alternate world,” she continues, “is that it allows one to explore, unfettered, some extreme version of all sorts of situations.”

Indeed, these specific issues – of segregation, of gender politics, of “brutal repression” – are very much abroad in the world right now, from Trump’s America to the small screen. The adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – which, like The Divide, deals with catastrophic inter-gender dysfunctionality – is the most talked-about TV drama of recent times. Whence our fascination with this topic?

“Haven’t we always been fascinated by the ‘what if’ genre?” Ayckbourn replies. “Back to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, et cetera. I’m delighted to see the Atwood classic has resurfaced. It’s nice to be in the buzz! Even though I wrote The Divide two years ago and had no idea then there was even going to be a buzz.”

The Divide has undergone various changes since its Scarborough all-day try-out. Enough, certainly, to make its author as keen as anyone to witness the Edinburgh premiere of a play that already feels like an important, landmark work. 

“[In 2015] we had a cast of about 30, with guest readers supplementing the resident company,” Ayckbourn recalls. “It was in five parts and read in excess of seven hours. Fortunately, Annabel Bolton was in the audience that day. She saw the potential, accepted the challenge and ran with it. Since then, they’ve cut it, reduced the cast, added music and it now has new opening and closing sections. Totally different, in fact! Can’t wait to see it.”

WORDS Craig McLean     

PHOTO Tony Bartholomew

WHERE & WHEN

The Divide Part 1, King’s Theatre, 8-20 August (not 9, 10, 14), times vary

The Divide Part 2, King’s Theatre, 9-20 August (not 10, 14), times vary,

both from £14 Tel: 0131 473 2000

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