An all-male production of Antony Burgess’ 1987 A Clockwork Orange has arrived in London, featuring ‘ultra-violence’ and a bit of the ‘the old in-out’. Alexandra Spencer-Jones directs this play of the novel, adapted to suit new choreography for a 2017 production.
Alex (Jonno Davies) and his gang of savage ‘droogs’ flex their muscles and parade their power in this punchy and fast-paced staging, telling of teenagers with no boundaries or morals, terrorising their neighbourhood with assault and rape. It is the totalitarian government that steps in to fix the nation’s crime epidemic with an unorthodox and experimental treatment.
Burgess’ 1961 novel was catapulted into international fame by Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation, which then became cult status when Kubrick banned it from UK screenings, bowing to media pressure over the controversial scenes of assault. Portraying the same extreme violence on stage 46 years later is a formidable task. Spencer-Jones allows the gang’s invented language (a mixture of English and Russian-derived words) to lead the way through scenes that include male rape and murder. Alex and his two closest sidekicks, Georgie (Luke Baverstock) and Dim (Sebastian Charles), babble their way through their frenzy of torture. The monologues, sometimes incoherent, are matched by Alex’s constant flexing of muscles, which are regularly on display as Davies discards his top at every opportunity.
Violence is delivered with engaging and intricate choreographed fight scenes, giving an impressive sense of controlled chaos, which mirror some of the theatrical revelry that Kubrick’s cast enjoyed in 1971. When not portraying assaults, the dance sequences seem to lose their way, including the symbolic journey of Alex from prison to the laboratories for his treatment; he is stripped to his underwear and paraded around the stage on the shoulders of the cast like a Britney Spears music video.
The score feels like a teenager’s playlist from the mid-noughties, with tunes from Muse, Scissor Scissors, and Beth Ditto’s Standing in the Way of Control, a track that accompanies Alex bludgeoning his second victim with a bust of Ludwig Van Beethoven. But it is the music of Beethoven, Alex’s passion and driving force in life, that feels underemphasised. By the time Alex’s relationship with Beethoven’s music changes in a pivotal moment, the 18th-century composer’s lack of development in the play seems even more pronounced.
A highlight performance comes from Will Stokes, playing a number of minor characters, each one standing out above the constant frenetic energy, including a creepy clown employed to test Alex’s ‘cure’ by provoking and assaulting him in front of a crowd of scientists.
Ultimately, it is inevitable to compare any production of A Clockwork Orange with Kubrick’s stylistically startling film. A disappointment in Burgess’ play is the omission of character development of Alex’s parents. Kubrick showed us a glimpse of the possible origins of Alex’s depravity; an infuriatingly distant and indifferent mother and father. Burgess and Spencer-Jones just give us comedy parents, delivered like a Monty Python sketch.
Burgess’ script shows us the deep divisions between young and old, with Alex feeling that “being young is like being an animal” – a sentiment that some feel today as the older generation drive our politics forward. As the US faces what appears to be an emerging totalitarian government, along with a growing alt-right movement in Europe, dystopian tales from the arts now carry an extra edge for the Western world. Perhaps now, more than ever, is when we should be sitting down to heed cautionary tales from Burgess et al.
A Clockwork Orange is playing at Park Theatre, London, until 18 March 2017.