Edinburgh theatre review: The Divide; Flight; Adam; Meet Me at Dawn

King’s theatre; Church Hill theatre; Traverse, Edinburgh
A six-hour Alan Ayckbourn epic is outdone by some tiny model figures, a true-life transgender tale and two marooned women with a secret

The Divide is one of the most astonishing failures I have seen on the stage. Astonishing not because a floundering drama is at the centre of the Edinburgh international festival’s theatre programme. It is hardly the first. But because this is an utterly undramatic play by Alan Ayckbourn – whose language is essentially theatrical. Ayckbourn has always been a disguiser, making light of his talents as he turns metaphysics into dancing comedy, and passes off philosophical exchanges as breakfast chat. He does not explain or describe: he demonstrates. Vivaciously. But The Divide is torpid.

There is one bright spark in the middle of Annabel Bolton’s production. Erin Doherty shines as the main reporter of the action: nearly always centre stage, though to the side of the main events. As she moves gawkily from childhood to young womanhood, she is utterly open but always wary. Burnished but unvarnished. She identifies with Jane Eyre – and makes you want to see her in the part.

But oh, the play! A giant, six-hour plod through a dystopia that has some resonance but few surprises: its satire comes not with the jolt of vision but with sad recognition – and suffers further from comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale.

We are in the future, and a plague – carried by females but infecting males – has caused the sexes to live separately. Their lives are governed by a misogynistic autocracy, with rules laid down in “The Book of Certitude” (is a reference to a canonical text in the Baha’i faith intended or inadvertent?). Women, outnumbering men, are bonneted in black; they bring up children in homosexual unions; heterosexuality is considered deviant. And then comes a romance that explodes these assumptions…

The Divide was first written as a novel, and that is pretty much what it still is. Prose sent as cut-up arguments marching around the stage. Much of the plot is based on extracts from diaries that are both beamed on to a screen and read out as monologues. Heard and seen and taking up a lot of time – but scarcely embodied. Christopher Nightingale’s score hints at what might have been conjured up. Laura Hopkins has made a sort of anti-design, a shimmer of grey curtains which can easily be transported to the Old Vic, where the play opens in the new year – and where someone should take another look at the jaunty, jarring proselytising for heterosexuality with which the play ends.

Flight is extraordinary. Paradoxical. An epic in miniature. A story that compels its audience towards strong feeling but keeps spectators at a distance. A peepshow that expands your eyes.

Vox Motus’s production begins with the sounds of gulls and guns. It moves from Kabul to Athens and Calais. It shows a rape, trafficking, the death of an adolescent. Its span is enormous. Yet everything is enacted by tiny models – moulded hair, set smiles, underlined eyes – planted in diminutive diorama landscapes. The audience, seated in separate darkened booths, watch a story of two young male refugees click around on a carousel as glowing individual scenes. A wide, gorgeously lit orange grove where a horror takes place. A thin trail of lorries down a streak of a road reaching back into the distance. A cramped cell with iron bedsteads. An icy container with the carcasses of pigs swinging from hooks. Medics struggling to resuscitate a young man. A closeup of wide, frightened eyes.

‘Exquisite detail’: a scene from the refugee tales told in Flight, ‘a peepshow that expands your eyes’.
‘Exquisite detail’: a scene from the refugee tales told in Flight, ‘a peepshow that expands your eyes’. Photograph: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

Jamie Harrison – a magician who created the illusions for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – and Candice Edmunds have worked with Oliver Emanuel to adapt Caroline Brothers’s novel Hinterland. The detail is exquisite: you can read labels on packing cases, see the clumps of grass in front of a bland railway station. Bird imagery gives the drama its equivocal title and an unworldly dimension. This is a story of soaring but also of fleeing: it shows fierce French officials with the beaks of seagulls, as well as, wistfully, a serene, maternal swan with her cygnets. A clear account of catastrophic events, yet subtle about what it is to look at them from the outside. We are easily beguiled as we watch disaster through a peephole; big bodies looking at enchanting small figures. You are told not to touch. You may be stirred but cannot intervene.

What a lovely thing Adam is: one of several plays at the festival based on transgendering. Its force comes from being based on a true story acted by its real-life hero, Adam Kashmiry. It is also a transformation story as absolute and glorious as Cinderella’s. It begins in Cairo where a girl is her mother’s unhappy “princess”. It ends in Glasgow where that girl has become contented Adam.

Adam Kashmiry and Neshla Caplan in the ‘completely uplifting’ Adam.
Adam Kashmiry and Neshla Caplan in the ‘completely uplifting’ Adam. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Observer

This is, Kashmiry gleefully points out, the opposite of the glass-slipper proof. His happiest moment was when he discovered his feet were too big to squash into dainty shoes. This was the point when who he was coincided with how the world saw him.

Cora Bissett’s production slips from one vividness to another. Girls kissing in a Cairo dress shop. The agony of someone so desperate not to be a woman that she takes a knife to her breasts. The pain of self-administered testosterone injections. The exhilaration of growing a beard.

The character of Adam himself is dual: with Kashmiry and Neshla Kaplan as arguing, cajoling, insinuating halves of the same person. Frances Poet’s beautiful adaptation of Kashmiry’s story also wires into a duality of language: playing with the idea of words, “contronyms”, that are themselves and their opposites – “cleave” for example. At the end, an anthem – soppily worded and completely uplifting – is sung while a screen at the back of the stage fills with the photos of trans people. This is their story as well as Adam’s. Though actually it is for everyone.

The Traverse has taken the message further. Their lavs have paper notices encouraging “patrons to please use the facilities that best fit their gender identity or expression”. One query: “patrons”? Matrons too, surely?

Zinnie Harris’s Meet Me at Dawn swims in and out of focus. You might say Orla O’Loughlin’s production moves in the manner of a person who has just been hit by the death of someone she loves. No steady development, no obvious logic; lots of what seems to be emotional shadow-boxing and bartering with fate; much darting from one extreme of feeling to another.

Setting and subject are opaque. Two women are marooned on what they say is a sandbank. Fred Meller’s design creates an abstract, semi-absurd landscape: a flinty floor, a sink (there is a reason for that) full of sand, a dripping tap.

‘Twinship of grief’: Neve McIntosh, left, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster in Meet Me at Dawn.
‘Twinship of grief’: Neve McIntosh, left, and Sharon Duncan-Brewster in Meet Me at Dawn. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Observer

For the opening scenes – made up of jagged questioning – the uncertainty looks like bewilderment in quest of Beckettian gravity. But as the underlying subject becomes apparent, more modest and more wonderful moments appear. This sandbank is a map of grief. It is a place in which all rules – not just of behaviour but of thought – are broken. Both women – lovers – have been together in a boating accident. One of them is dead; the other can hardly begin to realise this. What we are seeing is a dream-day in which they retrieve each other – with all their faults and irritations as well as their great love.

Any who saw Sharon Duncan-Brewster in A Streetcar Named Desire in Manchester will recognise her exceptional openness: she unfolds her limbs as if she is showing you her heart. Neve McIntosh is more concealing, shrinking into herself with unhappiness. Together they make a memorable twinship of grief.

Star ratings (out of 5)
The Divide ★★
Flight ★★★★
Adam ★★★★
Meet Me at Dawn ★★★


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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