Anthony Burgess’s dystopian tale of droogs and ultraviolence A Clockwork Orange was first published almost half a century ago. But read its ‘Nadsat’ slang in a present-day London recovering from riots, where government ministers seek solutions to crime – declaring prison doesn’t work, then demanding more are built – and it’s well deserving of its ‘modern classic’ status. A classic is nothing if not a text that resonates across the years.
In a week when, just over the road, the gigantic new mecca of consumerism that is Westfield Stratford flings open its doors to apparently recession-proof shoppers, Theatre Royal Stratford East does its own brownfield rebuild. Ed DuRanté’s adaptation of Burgess’s text is pared back almost to a guiding idea; this production is more a “re-imagining”. Sporting an original jazz-based score by Fred Carl – one of many ways in which this work is distanced from Stanley Kubrick’s 1972 film adaptation, in which Beethoven’s 9th Symphony was so central to the plot – it updates the text. Gone are the droogs, to be replaced by “ninjas”. Emergent estuary-patois takes over at the expense of Burgess’s arcane Anglo-Russian made-up words – there’s no mention even of eggie-weggies – and while the assumption is that we’re in present-day London, this is never made clear.
This production wants to be taken on its own terms, to the extent that the grand old Theatre Royal has been remodelled for it. Two banks of seating face each other, one on what would ordinarily be the stage, with the action staged in a central strip that approximates an urban skate park’s inclines. This switch-around removes the audience-performer barrier, most successfully in the opening moments when the insouciant protagonists swagger in, one even pointing a gun at an audience member’s head and grinning.
Less successful are the musical theatre moments in which the characters get to sing their songs as though we’re watching Mamma Mia. This flawed concept, despite some deft lyrical touches, drains momentum and introduces humour where it isn’t always best placed. And with an almost entirely non-white cast – the exception being understudy Jack Shalloo as Georgie – a racism subtext is also introduced; charismatic first-time lead Ashley Hunter, as Alex, references in “the racism of the criminal justice system” as though his problems are all down to the colour of his skin rather than any sociopathic tendencies. So far, so modern, if not quite classic.
One word left in is “ultraviolence”, and choreographers Jonzi D and Katie Pearson have a transparently contactless and rather mesmerising way of dealing with it. The jazz band’s snatches of dissonant notes soundtrack each slow-motion action, though what we see is never as graphic as Kubrick’s interpretation – nobody wields a giant clay penis statue here. Instead the overarching feeling is one of accentuating the positive, turning a blind eye to the worst aspects of the gang of youths Justice Secretary Ken Clarke would doubtless refer to as part of the “feral underclass”. Sexual menace is here replaced by an uncouth attitude; the couple set upon at the beginning have their vindictive revenge completely cut. At times it’s almost as if the concept of ultraviolence was too hot for this production to handle.
While Kubrick’s adaptation and Burgess’s American publishers left off A Clockwork Orange’s final chapter covering Alex’s redemption in favour of a darker vision, DuRanté restores it; but it’s still a tough ask to believe that a picture of a child changes Alex’s fundamental nature so completely, even though this Alex seems more like good-kid-gone-wrong than the irredeemably bad apple Malcolm McDowell so memorably brought to the silver screen.
In a 1985 interview Burgess dared to imagine what became of Alex. “He has energy. He’ll be able to use it to create,” he said. Despite some flawed, if brave, decisions at the concept stage of this production, the creative energy on display, for the most part, makes for a watchable evening of entertainment into which the cast, without exception, throw themselves.