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Theatre in Review: A Clockwork Orange (New World Stages)

Jonno Davies (center). Photo: Caitlin McNaney

There's plenty of sound and fury -- and a potentially star-making performance -- in A Clockwork Orange, but ultimately its effect is as off-putting as Nadsat, the Cold War-inspired slang spoken by Alex, the protagonist, and the gang of toughs who make up his circle of friends. Alexandra Spencer-Jones has staged this theatre piece -- I hesitate to call it a play -- taken from Anthony Burgess' novel, one of the more famous works of mid-twentieth-century British literature. In 1986, Burgess noted, with some sorrow, that the book's reputation rested in part on Stanley Kubrick's sex-and-violence-drenched film version -- a masterpiece, if a hateful one -- which, arguably, buried the author's ideas under a pile of shock effects. Spencer-Jones takes a similar approach: Her production amounts to a ninety-minute howl of rage; meant to electrify, more often it induces fatigue.

The script, originally written by Burgess and adapted by Spencer-Jones, lays bare the novel's bones. The fifteen-year-old Alex is the de facto leader of a small gang of feral adolescents who, when not downing drug-laced milk in their favorite bar, busily roam the streets of London, committing acts of assault and theft. Thanks to a power struggle among them, Alex is betrayed to the police and sent to prison. Bored with life behind bars, he volunteers to take part in an experiment called The Ludovico Technique, a form of aversion therapy, chillingly administered, that induces in him crippling bouts of nausea when confronted with violence. (Even a burst of rage is enough to send him into convulsions.) Thanks to a technical glitch, he is also sickened by the sound of music -- cutting him off from his beloved Beethoven. No longer a danger to society, he is, essentially, neutered, unable to enjoy the one thing that gave him a touch of humanity.

The Kubrick film is an ultra-violent horror comedy, well-remembered for such sequences as the fatal crushing of a woman with a giant phallus, the vicious beating accompanied by a rendition of "Singin' in the Rain," and the frantic sexual threesome performed to a sped-up version of the William Tell Overture. Although it never comes close to these nerve-rattling sequences -- which kept the film banned in the UK for two decades -- Spencer-Jones' direction is similarly adrenalin-laced: The action is punctuated by choreographed sequences of brutality, including one in which a broken bottle is dragged across the back of a captive victim. The characters are purposely two-dimensional, performed on the far edge of caricature; they're a set of figures arranged in a series of tableaux that amount to a contemporary Rake's Progress, albeit one reimagined by George Orwell and B. F. Skinner. No one simply delivers a line if there's a reason for it to be shouted from the rooftops. The action unfolds in a modern British dystopia, the atmosphere rotten-ripe with menace.

But, as in the film, all of Spencer-Jones' diligent -- and often effective -- work obscures the fact that Burgess was concerned with matters philosophical, even theological. (A lapsed Catholic, he never stopped wrestling with the religion of his youth.) A Clockwork Orange is concerned with the primacy of free will in the definition of humanity. For all the vicious crimes committed by Alex and his "droogs" (Nadsat for friends), the real monsters are the social engineers who would deprive Alex of the ability to choose between good and evil; the Ludovico Technique is, in the last analysis, a form of soul murder.

All of this is there to be found, if you are willing to filter out the noise and flash, but I'm betting that most audience members will be distracted by the production's insistent stylistic flourishes, many of which prove counterproductive. For example, in the uncredited costume design -- Jennifer A. Jacob is listed as costume coordinator -- Alex and his gang are dressed in black jeans, with matching black tank tops and white suspenders -- rather like a boy band posing for the cover of their first album. Given the dank, all-black playing area, the well-toned, often shirtless cast, and the pervasive air of homoeroticism -- among other things, Alex masturbates a member of his gang and, later, takes a boyfriend -- it sometimes feels as if the action is unfolding in an '80s-era backroom gay bar.

This is nothing against the lighting designer, James Baggaley, who fills the space with strongly articulated beam effects, stark sidelight washes, and powerful backlight effects, or the sound designer, Emma Wilk, who weaves a sinister tapestry of Beethoven, pop selections by the likes of Placebo, Gossip, and Muse, and original music by Glenn Gregory and Berenice Scott. (No set designer is credited, since the action unfolds in a black, empty space.) Even in the production's most assaultive moments, the work of these two designers never feels less than assured.

And, as Alex, Jonno Davies -- a new face from London -- provides the action with a white-hot center. Sporting a slicked-back pompadour, outfitted with a basilisk stare and crooked smile, he cruises the stage, looking for trouble, heedless of the consequences. He's a practiced sadist, thoroughly confident of his charm, who gets an almost physical charge from acts of cruelty -- and equally believable when the Ludovico Technique leaves him crumpled on the floor, sobbing, and, later, shaking from waves of revulsion. Whatever the reception A Clockwork Orange gets, it should provide Davies with a career beachhead in the US.

There are also solid contributions from Brian Lee Huynh as the sunny, smiling doctor who administers Alex's Ludovico treatments; Timothy Sekk as a prison chaplain who is the story's one voice of conscience and as Mr. Deltoid, Alex's creepy probation officer; and Matt Doyle, usually a musical theatre leading man, as Georgie, one of Alex's mates, and a tough-talking prisoner. But everyone in the cast tackles their tasks with enormous commitment.

Such is the expenditure of energy needed to realize this version of A Clockwork Orange that one can admire the skill and commitment of all involved while simultaneously wishing that they would stop so furiously pressing their case, if only for a second. Burgess, late in life, wished he could disown the book -- and, read today, it does seem a little bit thin, a stylistic exercise tied to a central concept that could stand some fleshing out. (Thankfully, Spencer-Jones makes minimal use of Nadsat, which is easier to understand on the page than when spoken in the theatre.) This production seems to exist largely because of the current cultural vogue for dystopias, examples of which include Broadway's 1984 and Zoe Kazan's upcoming After the Blast. After all the shouting, violence, and high-decibel sound effects, the play ends, as does the novel, with a bit of a dying fall. It makes you wonder if all that effort wasn't perhaps more than a little misdirected. For all its calculated outrages, this is a rather clockwork nightmare, lacking the juice of real pity and terror. -- David Barbour

(26 September 2017)

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