A Clockwork Orange

Where do you begin with A Clockwork Orange? Is it with Burgess’ 1962 novella? Or Kubrick’s 1971 film, whose style and invention is forever omnipresent? Or Burgess’ resulting stage version? Or the attendant controversies and misunderstandings of the work? Or the celebration of language and form? Or the underlying themes of the piece no matter its incarnation? Or the contentious 21st chapter? Approaching the piece can seem too much even for those of us who have treasured it for years. And so congratulations are in order for Fourth Monkey Youth Theatre’s cast and crew for taking an incredibly complicated work and trying to do something different with it. Whether or not this is successful is another matter.The novella and film offer up worlds where the violence and rape are disturbingly entertaining. We are drawn in by Alex’s first person narration, his recognition of us as his brothers in crime, his charm and wit, his cunning and class, the pure pleasure he takes in Beethoven and rape. And then, mystifyingly, we find ourselves desperate to tear through the page and screen to help him when he becomes a helpless victim in the State’s ultraviolent plot against him and his kind. This world is one corrupted in particularly specific ways. Politicians and doctors make career decision heedless of the consequences, justice is synonymous with revenge, and any rules of conduct are beneath those who can see their attendant hypocrisies.The world presented on the Theatro Technis stage is hardly the one depicted by Burgess or Kubrick. Firstly, the fourth wall is very much present and, given the intimate nature of the space, it serves to fully alienate us from Alex rather than endear us to him. We are voyeurs in the same way Alex reacts to Dr Brodsky’s films: it can only stir feelings of revulsion or boredom as opposed to empathy or pity. This is most clearly evident in the difference between the way the violence and rapes are choreographed. The blocking of the hand-to-hand combat feels stagey and under-rehearsed. The rape, however, seems specifically designed to disgust the audience. At one point a Alex rapes a woman with an umbrella for quite some time. This may be an allusion to the infamous ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ sequence from the film (that Burgess despised and redressed in his original version of the play by having Kubrick enter and play the song on a saxophone only to be booted off the stage) but it was, nonetheless very unpleasant to watch and unnecessary to the production.Or was it? Despite the story inherently focussing on masculinity and depictions of men, Steven Green (Director) has assembled an almost entirely female cast with mixed results. The majority of the chorus and supporting roles are played by women and, quite controversially, so is Alex. Amy Brangwyn approaches the role with enthusiasm but there are some inherent problems casting a woman as Alex, rape by umbrella being only one. Green has sexualised Alex and over the course of the evening we see Alex and his second in command, Pete, kiss and grope each other and, eventually Alex himself/herself is raped. Whilst there is something to be said both for and against this as a decision eventually the question is, ‘What does it add to the themes or story or characters?’ And, regrettably, my answer is ‘Nothing’. Brangwyn’s Alex falls down elsewhere. She comes across as a part of society that is bored by the rules around her when, in fact, Alex is an aberration of society who is above the rules. She is more like Harry Enfield’s Kevin, screaming ‘That’s not fair!’ and acting out in increasingly insincere and unforgivable ways to wheedle her way back to freedom. In truth, the pitch should be more towards a characterisation that is as diabolically charming as it is fiendish and terrifying. By the end we must believe that it is better to be able to choose evil over good than not to choose at all. Without this, Alex is no more than a thug, the same kind of person you would cross the street to get away from, but inherently ignore.Despite these criticisms, Brangwyn comes into her own in the second half. Her reactions to the Ludovico Technique are genuinely distressing and she exercises far more control over her performance leading to some genuine concern for Alex’s welfare. If the same were to be applied to the first half, I have no doubt that her performance would be far more even and watchable.The predominately female cast concept doesn’t work elsewhere. Mr Deltoid, Alex’s social worker, comes off as wet and resigned to the fact that people like Alex exist; whereas the real problem is that this is a black mark for his career. Gemma Barnett’s domineeringly sexual Governor is also a strange case opting for physically passive-aggressive sexual threats as opposed to using her charms to smooth things over with the public and press. There’s no need for this career politician to save face; everyone’s too scared of her. But that somehow misses the point. It may surprise some to know that the play is, in part, a musical, or rather a play with music. Much of the singing is so-so but that wouldn’t matter as much if the balance of voices were more even – another problem with the predominantly female cast. Instead it is clearly high-pitched and this robs the words of their violence and aggression. On the point of the words, all of the actors tear through their lines at such a furious pace that much of Burgess teen-slang language ‘nadsat’ – a wonderful and curious confusion of English, American and Russian slang – is lost. Brangwyn, for example, is so loud and so volatile that her shouts are frequently indecipherable. And the fact that the sound levels over the PA are much too loud does not help. The pacing of the play suffers from the same problems. The opening third plays more like Russian montage editing and, for the life of me, I have no idea how you are meant to follow what’s going on if you don’t already know the book or film. Indeed, Beethoven, the key to the whole story, is mentioned only twice before the Ludovico Technique ruins this for Alex. There’s no doubting the energy or commitment of the cast and crew but this is all at the expense of cohesion.There are some very commendable things in this production. The opening and closing montages are punk-grunge mash-ups that convey the sense of the world and the effect of the 21st chapter/final scene in a different and particularly affecting way. And there are stand-out performances by Theo Ancient (the Prison Chaplain) and Ellen Rose (Dr Brodsky). Ancient’s moralising is a pleasure to watch and Rose’s mad scientist is a wonderful Hammer Horror creation that suffers only for the speed at which she speaks.I understand that Fourth Monkey intend to take this to Edinburgh this Summer and so I want to finish the review by reminding them that this all constitutes constructive criticism. I fully believe that this cast and crew, with this production, can have a five-star Edinburgh success. In order for this to happen, however, I believe they must return to basics. Look carefully at the pacing of the play, make sure your fight scenes are better choreographed, actors start projecting and return to characterisations. And please, do invite me back when you’re up there. No doubt, I’ll viddy like a real horrowshow production that will be a real tolchock on the guliver. And all that cal.

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The Blurb

Teenager Alex and his droogs terrorise dystopic England with the ultraviolence and old in-out-in-out. But, when the police catch up with Alex, he decides to undergo a terrifying new medical procedure which makes him physically incapable of choosing between right and wrong.

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