After Part 1 of this six hour epic I thought the critics had, perhaps, been a bit harsh. After Part 2 it was clear to me they had not been. This new play by Alan Ayckbourn suffers from a fatal flaw, and it is a flaw which the commissioners should have spotted and required to be rectified before proceeding with this staging.
Ayckbourn's new play is a narrative of a dystopian future version of Salisbury. Owing to an unspecified plague but presumably some form of sexually transmitted disease, men and women are now forced to live separately from each other and, when they meet, they have to go visored (it has to be said the visors don't look particularly effective as disease preventers). All relationships are now same-sex. The country or possibly the world, again the play is vague on the point, is under the rule of the Preacher – though we are early informed that he is in fact dead by this point and has been replaced by a committee – a whole area of this invented world that barely features during the rest of the six hours.
The best that can be said for this show is that the cast and production team strive valiantly to save it. Erin Docherty as Soween (the heroine) in particular gives an impressive performance given the circumstances and I would like to see her in a better written part. Credit is also due to Jake Davies's Elihu and to Thusitha Jayasundera's Kest – the latter is, like nearly everybody apart from Elihu and Soween, sadly underwritten, but has a striking presence, and her final monologue in Part 2 was one of very few occasions where I was moved. The rest of the cast is all solid but I would say not exceptional – this is not a cast for example on the level of, say, some of last year's Glass Menagerie, or the Stein Seagull.
I had misgivings about the Festival entrusting a commission of this magnitude to director Annabel Bolton whose credits are mostly as Associate Director. In the event she does a very good piece of work assisted by lighting (David Plater), set (Laura Hopkins), pleasantly restrained video work (Ash J. Woodward) and movement (Lucy Hind). The latter often seems to me neglected in current main stage theatre and it was good to see the sense of fluidity here in particular. If physical contact or the absence of it between members of the ensemble rarely generates that powerful electricity of the greatest theatre that is not the fault of Hind but of a text which is persistently working against such effects.
For the fundamental fact is that this is a fatally flawed work that I doubt any amount of effective directing or acting can salvage. The problem is not, as some have suggested, that it needs to be cut because that cannot solve the basic structural fault. That is the decision to tell the vast bulk of the story via two diaries – this means we are constantly having events described to us, rather than actually seeing them, and when we do see them they are persistently interrupted for the diarists' descriptions and interpretations. This has several consequences. It reduces the pace of the play to an increasingly painful crawl. It removes space for the viewer to interpret stuff from how the actors behave – instead interpretation is constantly foisted on us. Yes, on occasion, there are disconnections between action and description but I'm afraid as far as I was concerned this simply undermined the whole thing rather than throwing up intriguing questions about who is telling the truth or why those disconnections existed. Finally, it creates an unfortunate distancing effect – with everything happening at one remove I found it difficult most of the time to care very much about the fate of the protagonists.
Beyond this, sadly, there are further problems. Gaping holes increasingly open up in the plot. To start with we are supposed to believe this an oppressive society where transgressions receive serious punishment. However, multiple transgressions are committed across Part 1 with no apparent consequences whatever and almost no sign of the allegedly fearful Monitors. When the latter finally do turn up midway through Part 2, and punishments are suddenly ratcheted up from nothing to death I found it difficult to take any of it seriously. I think we may be supposed to imagine that this is a society which is already crumbling but the way in which crumbling and still rigorous elements are mingled is just not convincingly written. Part of the problem is the baffling stupidity which starts to infect characters in Part 2 whom we have hitherto been led to regard as intelligent. The plot here partly hinges on nobody being able to find the secondary girl – it was perfectly obvious to me where she was and it should, given everything else we know they know, have been perfectly obvious to many of the characters on stage who nevertheless seemed incapable of working it out. It took considerable self restraint on my part not to shout: “Perhaps you should try looking in the 'secret' cave, you idiots!” The denouement on which the play's resolution turns assumes a level of passivity in a group of bystanders which again I found unbelievable.
There are also troubling aspects to Ayckbourn's representation of gender. Although he eventually produces a rather pat message of tolerance the effect earlier on of heterosexual love being an act of rebellion, represented alongside several troubled same-sex relationships does carry a problematic implication that the one is superior to the other. Some redemption of this occurs via the relationship of Soween's parents as the play proceeds, but I'm not sure it's enough – especially given that all the new relationships we see at the end are heterosexual ones. In addition, Ayckbourn also portrays female rebellion as being about the opportunity to wear dresses, make-up and high heels. He throws in reading Jane Eyre as some attempted compensation, but again the implication is troubling and not wholly assuaged by her final professional success.
Ultimately, however, the fundamental problem with this play is the structure. In this case those who commissioned the staging haven't the excuse that the text was not available when they took the decision. Presumably they read it before they did so. Their failure to spot the problem described suggests that they are perhaps not the sort of people who should be commissioning new stagings. As with other aspects of the theatre programme this year, there are questions for Fergus Linehan to answer.