Friday, January 4, 2013

'A Clockwork Orange' at the Soho Theatre, 3rd January 2013

As Alex and his droogs first make their way onto the stage you'd be forgiven for having some reservations.  Kubrick's iconic film lingers in the mind, and at first glance these guys look a little stage-y.  They're lithe, twirling about the stage with the precise, mannered movements of a dancer.  As they launch into a tightly choreographed dance-fight against Billyboy's gang my concerns grew.  Everything looked a little fey, over mannered.  Where was the blood, the pleasure in inflicting pain - the ultraviolence?

Soon after, someone's being raped with a broken bottle, and you begin to appreciate the raw power and and muscularity of the production, directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones.  This is helped, in large part by the gobsmackingly amazing performance of Martin McCreadie as Alex.  Up until this point I'd assumed that it was almost impossible to play Alex as anything other than a spin on Malcolm McDowell .  But McCreadie manages to encapsulate not only a genuinely threatening physical presence, but also a loveable impishness that shines through even when he's committing the most sadistic scenes of violence.  

Martin McCreadie as Alex
It's a difficult task finding the balance in Alex.  He's our protagonist and much of the play's latter half relies on us having at least some sympathy with his plight, but then how are we to come to love a vicious little git "whose principle interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven"?  McCreadie's Alex, even in his most despicable moments, still somehow manages to keep a shred of charm.  So when we see him bent double in pain, every muscle straining, sweat pouring down his face as he undergoes the Ludovico technique our sympathies remain with him.  Sure he's a psychopath, but Alex makes a kind of sense as a reaction to his environment, a world of grotesque caricatures and the worst kinds of little-Englanders.

In some regards, McCreadie's Alex is more threatening and effective than McDowell's  purely because you're in the same room as him.  The Soho Theatre is not a particularly big space, and during his monologues Alex speaks directly to us.  When he glares up at us with those black-rimmed eyes, his body tense and coiled you feel a little involuntary thrill of fear, rather than being separated from us by both a cinema screen and 40 years here is Alex DeLarge standing in front of you and it’s utterly magnetic.

The Ludovico Technique
The rest of the cast acquit themselves similarly well.  They constantly change roles, as Alex's droogs they're petulant, sinuous and overtly sexual in a spidery way.  I was surprised at how funny this adaptation was; many of these minor roles are played in an extremely exaggerated manner, at times approaching a sort of warped pantomime.  While the play dips more and more into the absurd after Alex has been institutionalised, it never detracts from the more serious themes.  

This adaptation brings the homoerotic elements of the text to the fore, intertwining them with the violence that Alex inflicts upon those around him.  It's an overtly gay adaptation, featuring an all-male cast of buff men who spend an inordinate amount of time topless and sweaty.  Everyone on stage is beautiful, something accentuated by the sharp makeup, styled hair and costumes seem designed to show off the actors muscles as they fight and fuck their way through the text.  The play is so effective in making these homoerotic elements work that when we get to the scene where the success of Alex's aversion therapy is tested, the artfully posing man they send in is equally and obviously as valid an object of desire for Alex as any woman might be. 

Magic Alex
This cocktail of homoeroticism, violence and sadomasochism is more reminiscent of Andy Warhol's adaptation of 'A Clockwork Orange': 'Vinyl' than anything Kubrick came up with.  In Warhol's (incredibly loose) adaptation we see our young protagonist stripped to the waist and whipped while forced to watch violent movies that are described to us rather than shown directly.  This play uses a similar device, describing horrific imagery to us rather than showing it directly.  It's a clever device, one which forces us to become complicit in the Ludovico technique.  As the cast recite graphic descriptions of atrocities we cannot help but visualise them ourselves, creating our own miniature horrorshows far worse than anything they could reasonably get away with on stage.

This production keeps things relevant, and when the text fortuitously references young people rioting in London, it neatly links us to a modern equivalent of Alex's behaviour.   Watching disaffected, masked youths smashing in the windows of high street shops and taking what they want is utterly terrifying, but on a symbolic level it's a kind of catharsis   The text of 'A Clockwork Orange' is in no danger of entirely losing its edge, but tapping into this modern mixture of fear and anarchistic thrills helps make 'A Clockwork Orange' seem less fantastic and more contemporary.

Another similarity to Warhol's 'Vinyl' is a great pop soundtrack, something that helps anchor this production in the modern day; for example, rather than a violent beating being soundtracked to 'Singin' in the Rain', we get 'Standing in the Way of Control' by Gossip.  Later we get scenes set to the Scissor Sisters and Placebo.  It adds a level of recognisably camp deviance to proceedings, these are things a modern audience can readily identify with, dragging us further into the world this staging of 'A Clockwork Orange' creates.

So if this production is so desperate to bring 'A Clockwork Orange' into the modern day, what does it actually have to say about modern youth?  I don't think there is a convincing modern analogue for the Ludovico technique, but the notion of a government happy to employ those who enjoy inflicting violence rings true.  After Alex's release he bumps into his former droogs, now gainfully employed as policemen.  As they sadistically kick Alex in the guts it brings to mind the self righteous uniformed killers of Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson.  

This production uses the original (and somewhat more optimistic) ending of the book.  We see an older Alex with a new trio of droogs (all ominously wearing hoodies), but we see that he's begun to outgrow his taste for violence.  The text rejects forcing a morality upon others, and shows us that a greater sense of maturity naturally leads to a decline in desire for violence.  He introduces us to his new partner and seems genuinely in love, ready to move towards a tentatively brighter future.  As a epilogue I've always felt it was a bit unnecessary.  Seeing a grown-up, matured Alex makes him seem a bit neutered, as if his impulses and actions were 'merely' growing pains. I prefer the implication at the end of the US version of the book and Kubrick's film, that Alex is less an expression of teenage angst and more something endemic to humanity, a dark, violent thing that lurks on the edges of our collective consciousness.

It's a tremendous production, one of the most compelling I've seen on stage in a long time.  It sustains a fast-paced, muscular intensity throughout, and the overtly erotic elements create a compelling link between sexual urges and to the desire to inflict violence.  The whole thing is held together by a god-damn amazing performance by Martin McCreadie, who brings Alex DeLarge to terrifying life in front of our eyes.  If it goes on tour, make sure to go and see it as it's finishing up in the Soho Theatre tomorrow.

'A Clockwork Orange' is on 4th and 5th of January at The Soho Theatre, London, returns only.

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