A Clockwork Orange once seemed a dystopian fantasy, an imagined world where author Anthony Burgess could explore important themes about choices made by society and individuals. But in 2017, when the choices of a minority dictate the future for the UK and the USA, it seems all too frighteningly real. This terrific production feels like a barbaric symphony, a fusion of Beethoven and brutality that is heinously confronting but also startlingly beautiful.
Action to the World’s production of A Clockwork Orange has been in performance since its debut in 2011. Directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones, it is now playing, in a version modified for the more intimate space, at the Park Theatre, one of the most engaging venues in London.
Masterfully, Spencer-Jones creates a feline balletic language for the production and this is what really sets it apart. Physical movement, often of the most intimate and barbaric kind, is integral to the impact of author Anthony Burgess’ themes: assault, rape, murder, defilement, humiliation, domination, surrender – all are manifested in physical moves which are potent, but strangely appealing.
Creating this dichotomy is a real achievement.
Burgess’ novel, made into a famous and controversial film by Stanley Kubrick in 1971, centres on an amoral youth, Alex, and his gang of marauding Droogs, friends who roam in packs, taking their pleasures and inflicting pain as they choose. Milk laced with drugs powers their violent frenzies and, with Alex in charge, no person is safe and any extreme is possible.
Alex is betrayed when a foray goes wrong and finds himself in jail. There he rots, while working his way to the top of the power pole, until he is offered a chance to participate in the Ludovico rehabilitation scheme. Alex signs up and is subjected to harsh aversion therapy, his eyes kept wide open while images of sex and violence are played before his eyes. Classical music plays all the while, a sharp contrast to both what Alex sees and what he experiences.
Alex is declared cured. His conditioning means that he can no longer commit violence or enjoy sex – but nor can he enjoy classical music. Beethoven is now anathema to him. He returns to his parents home, but they don’t want him and the lodger who has his room resents him. His former Droogs, now police officers, attack him but he can’t fight back. Violence is still part of his life, but now as victim, not perpetrator.
How these tensions resolve, if they do, is best left for the theatre. This is quite a different treatment from Kubrick’s but one that is fundamentally sound, and very powerful.
Part of the strength of the language that Spencer-Jones utilises in telling the tale is that confronting abhorrent images have an intangible beauty – mainly, this is because there is such a balletic sensibility to everything. Movement might be violent but it is nevertheless graceful, stylish. You watch terrible deeds, appalled by them, but also enchanted by the way they are presented.
It’s as discomforting and unsettling as anything might be.
Violence is often perceived as a very masculine thing. Certainly, the violence in Kubrick’s film is very masculine, and borderline, if not over-the-line, misogynistic. Spencer-Jones presents a different view of violence, which makes it both harder to understand and impossible to dismiss. Her all male cast is critical to this.
These men are powerful, physically near perfect, coolly violent and sexually ambiguous at the same. They might rape or kiss or fondle – men or women or both might be their targets – but sex is just another act of violence to them.
The absence of a woman in the cast means that this story is not about heteronormative assumptions about behaviour; nor is it about stereotypes or situations familiar from countless movies and HBO series.
No. Here, Spencer-Morgan distills Burgess’ themes like fine gin. The result is acrid, challenging and full of colourful grace notes. It’s focus is resolutely sharper.
The initial scenes with Alex’s Droogs are alienating and confronting. Their language is almost unintelligible – as it surely would be to those who were not part of their inner circle. The fight with the Billy Boys is superb (take a bow, Hannah Lee) and although some of the moves might suggest Cats, the grim gravamen of the moves and the purpose behind them clearly establishes how high the stakes are here.
It is Jonno Davies, extraordinarily charismatic and intriguing as Alex, who leads the audience through the vista of violence. He is the thug, the extrovert assailant, the peacock pariah, calling the shots, insisting on action, randomly trashing property or people. It is Alex who smashes a glass and anally rapes a victim with the jagged end. It is Alex who punches as hard as he kisses, who teases as much as he taunts.
Davies is phenomenal. He looks like someone who could have inspired Michelangelo to carve David, proud, aryan and intensely manly. But he has such grace and supple dexterity as a mover that you see beyond the mindless violence and wonder how he got to the place where Droogs matter most to him. After the savagery he performs, it is startling to realise, as you inevitably do, that what happens to him in the Ludovico reconditioning, society’s answer to the question of lost, disengaged youth, is more frightening than anything Alex does.
Davies has the power to make you understand the thrill of anonymous sex and violence and the rapture of listening to Beethoven. He makes Alex a creature of discernment but obsidian morality. You want him to be able to choose to take the right path, not just have all paths taken away from him. The scene where he realises he won’t be able to enjoy Beethoven again, without unendurable pain, is quite disturbing: you cannot help but feel sorry for him.
Davies is mesmerising, and he makes every moment count. He has some marvellous support from Sebastian Charles, who is unsettling as Dim and then, frightening as Joe, the lodger who has replaced him in his parents’ home. Luke Baverstock and Tom Whitelock are both excellent, carving out characters that leave a mark and make a point.
Simon Cotton, Damien Hasson, Will Stokes and Philip Honeywell play a variety of roles and bring real skill to what they do. Moments are comic or sensuously affecting exactly as required. Ambivalence is used like a weapon. James Smoker shouts more than he ought, although his grasp of character is sound, particularly as the old woman.
James Baggaley lights proceedings with vigour and style, and the use of sound is excellent throughout. When Beethoven’s Ninth comes, it has an affect like acid rain – refreshing but searing.
A Clockwork Orange is not the kind of experience you can classify as enjoyable. But it is shocking and confronting and compelling in equal measure. Spencer-Jones has created something vital and remarkable and in Davies she has a bona fide star.
Well worth seeing.