“Is it better to be forced to do good or to have the licence to do evil?” It’s a big question, and one that, as Volcano Theatre Company’s artistic director Paul Davies emphasises, is at the core of Anthony Burgess’ famous dystopian novella A Clockwork Orange. It is also a question that Volcano’s new version of this iconic, frequently adapted book is determined to both preserve and prod at.
As Davies discusses over the phone with me, any adaptation of A Clockwork Orange has Stanley Kubrick’s controversial, celebrated film to contend with. Burgess himself was so disillusioned with stage versions of his book that seemed simply to pay homage to Kubrick’s – in his opinion flawed – film, that he was eventually provoked to write his own playscript. It is this source, alongside the original novella itself, which Davies has referred to for this adaptation. “My starting point was that I’m very enthusiastic about Burgess’ language – I think that’s his primary achievement – so I felt that we had to constantly keep the whole Kubrick achievement out of the rehearsal room and just focus on the words.”
Language is a key concern of Davies’ and is also key to Burgess’ dystopian creation. In A Clockwork Orange, Burgess dreamed up a whole alien, unsettling lexicon for Alex and his droogs, a strange blend of Anglo-Saxon and Slavic sounds that is inextricably tangled with the acts of ultra-violence that they casually commit; as Davies puts it, “you can point to the menacing nature of the violence with language”, a feat that is accomplished by Burgess with terrifying potency. “Burgess uses this peculiar language that both mesmerises us and holds us in a rhythmic sway and legitimises all sorts of nasty things,” Davies continues. He expands on this by linking the breakdown of language to the breakdown of order in society: “language has rules and when the rules are broken violence will ensue”.
Violence is another issue that arises when attempting to bring Burgess’ disturbing vision to the stage, with it being easy to unintentionally glorify the horrific scenes of abuse that Burgess has written. When I bring it up, Davies openly admits that it is a difficulty. “What I didn’t want to turn it into was the actors being violent to the audience and just shouting about how angry they are,” he says, also stressing that he didn’t want to “kitschify” the violence in the way that Kubrick did in the film. In an intriguing move, Davies has cast not one but five actors in the role of Alex, one of whom is a woman. Because, as Davies explains, Alex represents “the potential to do evil”, it was vital to him that all of the cast members should transgress in some way.
Speaking about violence on stage in a wider sense, Davies is adamant that “theatre can only go so far representing violence”. When the problem of violence must be tackled, as in A Clockwork Orange, he also has clear ideas about how this should be approached. “I suppose that because Volcano started out as quite a hard-core physical theatre company, for me violence has to be either hyper-real in a Baudrillardian sense, or it has to be surreal and surprising,” he says. Considering how violence might be surprising, Davies suggests, “perhaps it makes you laugh and then makes you feel uncomfortable about laughing”.
Laughter may seem like an odd reaction to a piece that contains violence, rape and extreme state-inflicted punishment, but Davies insists that there is a lot of humour in the production they have created. “Our show is quite funny, because I think that in the face of man’s capacity to do evil, sometimes all you can do is laugh,” he explains. Laughter is also perhaps a betrayal of the inability to understand what is being presented, a failure to comprehend the evil acts committed by Alex. “What Burgess challenges, ultimately, is our rationalist determination to understand,” says Davies. “Some things might be beyond our ken.”