A Clockwork Orange
Based on the novel by Antony Burgess
Belt Up (Nothing to see/hear) with the University of York Drama Society
The Studio, York Theatre Royal
'Wear comfortable shoes and clothing. Do not bring large bags' warns the publicity. Days before the show Belt Up (nothing to see/hear) begin the intrigue and anticipation for their production of Antony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. A company described as 'aggressively participatory' (by the Sunday Times) set about a show that is certainly not for the faint hearted.
A younger audience than York Theatre Royal's usual demographic gathered in the theatre courtyard and waited in an atmosphere of fearful anticipation as we were picked off one by one and asked to enter the alley behind the Studio theatre. What would happen? When we are finally chosen and wait to enter the theatre, we are instructed in the mime representing weaponry in the play, including knives, flick-knives, knuckle-dusters and chains. 'Be careful in there,' warns our usher.
Inside is a dark, smoky atmosphere, every actor in black coming out of the dark at you with a white painted face and bowler hat. The floor is taped over with a black crash mat but the audience remain in their usual seating arrangement (so the money's on the back row being the safest!). Isolated from your friends by being separated earlier, director Alex Wright sets up a momentous feeling of expectation.
A Clockwork Orange is set in a dystopian future in which the protagonist (also called Alex) and his gang commit acts of 'ultra-violence' for fun. When fifteen year old Alex's arrogance proves too much for his fellow 'droogs' they shop him to the police and he is sent to prison. In prison he takes part in the Ludovico Experiment which conditions him against any aggressive act and leaves him unable to return to his previous way of life. Outside prison he is powerless and tries to commit suicide as he is tormented by the music that was played throughout his conditioning. His suicide destroys the work done by the conditioning and the play ends with his reflection on the passions of his youth.
Undoubtedly the vast majority of Belt Up's audience will know the story of violence, rape, murder and punishment which is certainly necessary since, disappointingly, the audience participation proves extremely distracting to the actual storytelling. Hearing characters suddenly dropping out of character and asking you incredibly politely to move aside, 'for your own safety', undermines that amazing atmosphere that started the piece. The production starts with an impressive fight sequence (which proved so dangerous on the first evening that the central actor was concussed and the performance ended with him being taken to hospital in an ambulance!) which would have had more impact had it been shorter. With the poor lighting and excess of bodies on stage much of the aforementioned mime was completely lost in the blur. There were also two short breaks in which the actors were able to greet and chat with friends in the audience (although the audience weren't allowed to leave) which served to further breakdown the primary feeling of fear.
Understandably this is a university drama society with budget restrictions however watching the actors continually stopping to adjust their codpieces (which was effectively an elasticated belt) whilst mid fight sequence also proves paltry. Similarly in a piece with such stylised language, clear diction and central action are highly important. This, again, is disappointing, and hindered again by the over-long fight sequence which consequently leaves the actors gasping for breath, or in one case, one actor who characterised one of his roles (the Chaplain?) as looking at the floor making him difficult to hear. In their exuberant youth Belt Up have somewhat neglected fundamental theatre skills such as detailed mime and sufficient projection.
However this is certainly in innovative and energetic production to have at York Theatre Royal and to be welcomed for its enthusiasm and originality. Belt Up provide a shock to the system which is exciting and leaves me wondering whether I will not find the usual safety of my audience seat somewhat disappointing in comparison to this visionary experience. We have to ask what the function of this style of audience participation is in this production. In setting up an atmosphere of fear, it works brilliantly. So on one side we are submerged into the feelings of a society intimidated by violent gangs. On the other hand it eclipses the central moral message of the Antony Burgess' work: the prevention of the exercise of free will.
Ultimately the youthful company set up a fantastic atmosphere of isolation, alienation and anticipation from the start by separating the audience from their friends and allowing their imaginations to run wild as to what will happen when inside. But central, prolonged sequences and caricature 'elderly' acting, as well as atmosphere-dropping breaks work to their detriment. This is certainly an incredibly exciting company with a firey future ahead of them, one to look out for, in the first flushes of youth.
Reviewer: Cecily Boys