Why bother adapting Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange after Kubrick? The author wasn’t happy with the film but as Stephen King’s dismal TV version of his own novel The Shining demonstrates, faithful doesn’t equal definitive. Add to the mix the tabloid scaremongering about copycat killings that saw Kubrick ban his film from being shown in the UK for three decades, and you are looking at a pretty steep cultural hill to climb.
And yet theatre-makers can’t help shoving on their hiking boots and giving it a go. Six months after Theatre Royal Stratford East staged a new version based on the film, the Arcola is playing host to this speedy, heavily stylized reworking of Burgess’s 50-year-old dystopian fable, which dispenses with Kubrick’s iconography to riff on the original text. In place of mascara-lined eyes and bowler hats, Volcano has focused on the demented warp and weave of the language spoken by 15-year-old Alex and his Droogs.
One reason for A Clockwork Orange’s current popularity is obvious: its vision of a society overrun with violent gangs and ruled over by a repressive government is irresistible as a mirror of post-riots Britain. But apart from a glancing reference to East London and a self-serving nature/nurture debate about punishment and treatment by Coalition types, Volcano backpedals on the obvious contemporary parallels.
The production doesn’t ignore the stink of economic deprivation that pervades the book’s landscape of rundown apartment blocks. But by indiscriminately sharing Alex’s voice between characters ranging from a Cockney and a public schoolboy to an American, it suggests that he is everywhere. The destruction and sexual violence that the Droogs leave in their wake can’t be conveniently traced back to a council estate.
The bar-coded white shirts worn by a five-strong cast contribute to an effectively Orwellian atmosphere of enforced conformity and hyper-surveillance. A bank of televisions at the back of the thrust stage reinforces this sense of scrutiny, intermittently flickering into life with bleak CCTV footage and surreal, disturbing images.
This stripped-back set design reflects director Paul Davies’s focus on letting Burgess’s language do the storytelling. From the first scene, in which an official viciously beats the teenaged Droogs for using ‘Slav’ slang, he takes the Cold War-ish paranoia of the grown-ups in the novella and turns it into a conflict between state and citizen in which language is a weapon and youth culture is the battleground.
Davies has his ensemble toss chunks of Alex and his gang’s “nadsat” at us like grenades, which explode into jagged pieces of Russian and rhyming slang. Throughout, the cast give performances of electrifying intensity. They make no concession to plot or character, chucking lines between each other in a rush of noise and violence as if daring us to lose track. The effect is at times rebuffing, comic, exhilarating and exasperating.
Volcano occasionally missteps in its attempt to challenge us – particularly when it yokes Burgess’s densely constructed linguistic world to a self-conscious meta-theatricality that is more irritating than illuminating. The actors’ sardonic delivery of stage directions and occasional self-referential comment on their roles is a clumsy sneer on the face of a production capable of more interesting things.
While the Barbie dolls hacked to pieces as a backdrop to a brutal rape are jarringly symbolic, more successful is the way in which the actor playing Alex is commanded by another to continually repeat his attempted escape from the house of an old woman he has just murdered. This speeded up loop powerfully conveys the deadening cycle of violence that eventually leads to Alex’s imprisonment and the no less brutalising aversion therapy intended to make him a ‘better man’.
So, this ambitious if tonally uneven production suggests that there’s life after Kubrick. But although Volcano faithfully follows the novella’s trajectory up to and including the final chapter omitted in the film – where an older Alex grows tired of violence and looks forward to raising a child – it fundamentally fails to get grips with the ethical issues that give the book its unsettling potency. Is it better to be free to choose evil or to be compelled to be good? Where is the morality in treating humanity as a thing to be fine-tuned, like a clockwork orange? As Burgess’s Alex disappears as an anchor amid the sound and the fury and composite voices of this interpretation, we hear the questions but – crucially – do not feel their weight.