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A Clockwork Orange

A new adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel: words by Ed DuRanté, music by Fred Carl
Theatre Royal Stratford East
(2011)

A Clockwork Orange production photo

Anthony Burgess made his own stage version of his most widely known novel and even wrote some Clockwork Orange songs but that is not what is on offer here. The publicity describes this as a "cult classic re-imagined" and that is exactly what it is. Unlike Stanley Kubrick's notorious movie, which was based on the first US edition of the book from which the American publishers insisted on deleting the final chapter, this follows the spirit of the original 21 chapter version.

It is not an attempt to faithfully reproduce the detail of the book. Alex, its central character, isn't particularly a classical music aficionado, though he's keen on culture, and his band of droogs now refer to themselves as ninjas and although they have their own distinct vocabulary, it isn't Burgess's Nasdat. It doesn't try to pack in everything that's in the book and the incidents it chooses are often reworked. Athough still recognizable as Burgess', this is a version rethought for today.

Alex is now the son of Caribbean immigrants and, though there is a white member in his gang of ninjas, this version is a reflection of contemporary Britain and heavily influenced by Black culture and the lawless violence of street life. Alex has a poet's love of words so the script is full of rich language and the rap-like rhythms of its lyrics are full of repetitions and rhymes.

Dawn Reid's production stylizes the violence through the movement often verging on street dance, which is the contribution of Jonzi D and Katie Pearson. This isn't going to spark off the copy-cat crime that Kubrick feared his movie led to causing him to withdraw it from exhibition, none of the punches actually connect, but that doesn't stop it from being very intimidating and sometimes making the audience seem threatened.

Music underscores much of what is going on and the numbers grow naturally from the action, often an actual part of it and sometimes a kind of soliloquy expressing ideas or feelings. They aren't the sort of catchy songs you go home whistling, but they strengthen emotional impact and drive the show onward.

Played on a simple set with the audience on two sides (the theatre has been reconfigured with part of the audience build out over the stalls to match another bank of seating on the rear of the stage) with entrances and sometimes action down the gangways or from stage gantries, it seems to be aiming for involvement but the characters have little life outside the moments of the plot when we see them so the audience become very much observers.

We are presented with youth that gets its kicks from violence, a burgeoning police state, a brutalised police force, and chemical and psychological conditioning as the answer to criminality. Recent riots and current concern with gun and knife crime and how to handle them gives this reworking half a century after the original publication an apparent topicality but, without a social and historical background, it becomes just entertainment rather than an exploration of social problems and their possible solutions.

What it does produce is some strong and very physical, if rather one-dimensional, performances: especially from Marcus Powell doubling Alex's father (who gets the title number) and a prison chaplain, Darren Hart as the gentler of the ninjas with Raphael Sowole and Jack Shalloo (taking over from an injured Sonny Muslim) as the others. Alex's serial killer cell mate may seem a gentle Buddhist but by the slightest movement Kirris Riviere makes him a sinister sexual predator.

At the centre of it all is Ashley Hunter's attractive and charismatic Alex. It is a lovely performance, making it hard to believe that this is his first professional production. But surely we should find him shocking, and shocked at ourselves that we go on liking him. Instead I felt the audience reacting like fans to a pop star and on that level the production misses out.

Is conditioning that removes free will acceptable? The chaplain voices his objections, but the upbeat ending almost suggests the treatment has worked, rather than sending people out asking questions. The performances and the beat of the music engaged me but surely there is more to A Clockwork Orange than this.

"A Clockwork Orange" runs at the Theatre Royal until 1st October 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton