A Clockwork Orange

Anthony Burgess
Arcola Theatre

Violence, sexually-driven violence, torture, and milk, pints of it.

Volcano theatre company takes on the challenge to revive Burgess’s masterpiece. It is one of many revivals, it won’t be the last one and is not one of the best ones.

It is Alex’s story, l’enfant terrible from a dystopic world of urban gangs; the story told through the eyes of the self-indulgent teenager with a love for Beethoven and rape, for a freedom beyond ethics and morality, who receives an equivalent terrible treatment for punishment.

The staging of such an iconic and disturbing piece that created so much controversy when filmed so wonderfully by Kubrick cannot help but raise questions on the representation of violence. What is the point of representing violence? Does violence still shock? Does it need to shock?

Theatre is the place that breaks or should break boundaries and violence, as much as nudity (or sex), enables this process and can still shock. Volcano’s production definitely achieves this but for all the wrong reasons.

Volcano has a reputation for creating singular theatre that has a focus on physicality, on movement. And one can see the ability to create strong physical and powerful theatre through the relentless shouting, the persistent churning of the five actors, who give all what they have got. It is an immense physical effort to keep that sort of tension at all times, quite constant throughout the piece and in some scenes it is literally pure corporeal strain.

The actors are energetic and manage well to sustain the intensity at its highest, but the audience might not or want to. Especially when it comes to the sound that is ear-piercing enough for those with normal hearing but possibly damaging for those with minor hearing problems (I strongly suggest that some reference to it is made in the programme or on the web site to advise the audience). The actors, from their side, can hardly catch a breath and ultimately what comes across as mediocre acting can just be down to distracted directing that focuses too much on the effect rather than on substance.

It is a pity that Burgess’s iconic words are lost in rushed, loud deliveries and so much of the plot goes with it. If you did not know the story, you could hardly follow it.

There are some interesting choices: one additional character is added to Alex’s gang, a woman, who adds a maternal, feminine subtlety to Alex’s world, subtlety that soon enough disappears and is neutralised by the excess of testosterone on stage. Another interesting choice: Alex is not one character but many, a fragmented, fluid sum of personalities; the actors all have a go at playing a part of Alex. They all bring something different but seemingly the same, their differences being effaced by the flat acting and the constant shouting in the audience’s face. Some of them sound oddly very similar to Malcom McDowell—Alex in Kubrick’s film—and his fierce cockney accent.

It is the similarity to the film and the sense that some of the images are taken so literally that makes this show a bit of a parody of the movie and, then, too much a persiflage of the book itself. If this was a new piece, many would have walked out outraged, puzzled and indignant by what is essentially a chaotic mess.

There are so many images, and some of them work better when they translate and suggest the cruelty of the acts they are trying to represent: the rape scene at the start is, for instance, suggested by dolls being cut with scissors. However, there are too many images to recall. The same goes for the different theatrical languages used: dance movement, video-projection, story-telling etc. The actors are well-skilled to switch between them, yet it resembles a conceptual art performance (not at its best) rather than theatre or drama.

Nowadays, when we live in a visual world with much violence, I am adamant that the portrayal of violence should be a sophisticated business to leave a permanent mark, an internal emotional shock, to break boundaries.

Pints of milk being drunk in excess, saliva dripping from exhausted actors together with all the rest of it just does not do the trick.

Reviewer: Mary Mazzilli

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