Volcano’s recent production of A Clockwork Orange is brash, loud, and everything you’d expect a staged version of the notoriously ultraviolent novella to be. Retold by 5 actors (4 male, 1 female) in black and white uniforms with knee high boots and neckties over the course of one and a half hours (no intermission) at a relentlessly high level of intensity, one walks away feeling as though they’ve been hit with a sledgehammer.
Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel is a dystopian world where the English youth dope themselves up and terrorize the streets, homes and any adults they stumble upon looking for a ‘real horror show’ feeling, all to a soundtrack of profanity and classical music. We meet Alex, who is already in a downward spiral, and watch him maim an old man outside the library, beat a writer and rape his wife, and rape two young girls in his family’s flat while slacking off from school. It’s the fourth incident, stealing from an old woman in her mansion, that leads to his arrest and imprisonment. What happens next is a terrifying Pavlov’s dog-type brain-washing called the Ludovico Technique by the prison doctors that gives Alex a sick feeling every time he thinks of impure or evil thoughts. The conditioning works and in two years time, Alex is back on the streets again, as a supposedly changed man.
The Arcola theatre’s edgy makeshift warehouse is a perfect setting for Volcano’s production with a small thrust style stage and stadium seating where everyone can loom over the action, and five TV screens on a metal shelving unit serve as a backdrop. As we enter, the actors mill about running drills timed by each other with a stopwatch. Loud factory sounds blare from the speakers inducing me to wonder if Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ will come next. The noise grows louder and then stops as the actors take their places. What follows next is a choreopoem with each actor taking on the persona of Alex and quoting long passages from the book while the remaining actors create the scenes described, impersonating Alex’s droogs and parents, usually accompanied with a distorted physicality conveying aggression and pain. Book pages are torn out, Barbie dolls are cut up and defiled, and umbrellas are warped and mutilated, all with sharp thudding energetic moments that never let up. What seemed to be lacking was the actor’s sense of connection to each other as well as the audience. The coldness of the piece left little room for sympathy and as Alex jumped from one actor to the next, it was hard to relate to his dilemma or the sterile environment we were subjected to. I thought artistic director Paul Davies would have played more on the audiences’ knowledge of the London riots as a contemporary point of reference, but this was only alluded to in the shows’ teaser. Although emphasizing one of Burgess’s themes, which weighs the choice to do evil against being forced to do good, was quite evident in the actor’s vocal work. The cast were all equally convincing, casting their own impression on Alex and the subject matter. Mairi Phillips was especially a joy to watch; with her piercing looks and focussed energy it was sometimes frightening to look her in the eye. I also enjoyed Alex Moran who played a vulnerable, frustrated youth and, to me, a more honest portrait of the novel’s protagonist. The instants where actors stepped out of character and commented on the action broke up the tension in the room and helped add humour to the piece. Especially enjoyable was one American actor, Billy Rayner’s, rant on Britain as the failed empire who no longer justly punishes their criminals. Although many of theses asides were less well written when compared to Burgess’s prose.
There was a respectful focus on the language, making it easy to understand most of the dialogue, although some parts did seem to lose momentum. I suspect this is a casualty of the actors tending to talk at you instead of really engaging the audience in what is taking place. It seemed the action would go on full throttle, whether one was ready to go on the journey or not. And while the actors were interesting to watch, if a more spontaneous connection to the audience would have been added, a more dynamic live theatrical experience could have taken place instead of the slightly static result.
At the same time, Volcano’s unique adaptation makes a great conversation piece, especially in comparison to Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film. The performance art abstract vibe was a welcome change that spoke more truthfully to the novel as a whole.