A Clockwork Orange | new theatreFancy a bit of the old ultraviolence?

Some of you may prefer to stick with a long cool glass of Moloko Plus, as the brutality in this new production of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is at times rather sickening and certainly not glamorous in the least.

For those of you unfamiliar with the stage version, it is notable as, essentially, a work of reactive re-adaptation. Dismayed by the public perception of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of his short novel, Burgess sought to reclaim his text by translating it into his own version for the masses in the form of a play (as the chat at the Box Office reminded me, Stephen King also did much the same thing after Kubrick adapted his book The Shining, later producing a more faithful mini-series).

Admittedly better acquainted with the film than the book itself – although I had seen the play before in Auckland – the plot of the stage version initially seems oddly compressed, dispensing with the iconic mayhem of Alex and his droogs in very short order, with our antagonistic protagonist landed in prison by what seems no more than halfway through the first act. It seems odd structurally, and more than a little rushed, in particular rather inadequately establishing the essential point of Alex’s appreciation of the music of his beloved Ludwig Van. Similarly, very little time is spent focusing on the depths of depravity for which he is to be punished and so controversially “cured”.

Which returns us to the old ultraviolence and, in particular, the old in-and-out. Apparently one of Burgess’ major objections to Kubrick’s rendering of his novel (or at least the way it was received) was the apparent glamorisation of Alex and his cronies, that their horrendous antics became aestheticised and misconstrued. This dissatisfaction, likely compounded with the limitations of prolonged violence onstage, results in the aforementioned compression. However, this production has strived to make these fleeting early scenes have an impact, and they do. The gang brawls are visceral and convincing, but are ultimately less unsettling than the droogs’ sexual predations. This presentation of Burgess’ characters leaves you in no doubt that these delinquent teens are vicious rapists without a shred of remorse.

Which, of course, is absolutely necessary in order to establish that Alex is no mere antihero, but rather a genuinely despicable individual, in order to make the real message of the play all the more clear. Does the state have the right to deny its citizens of free will, even for one as vile as Alex? Does removing the right to choose, even to choose evil, not make us something less than human? Admittedly, the message is not subtle, nor does this production try to make it so. But for any of you who have never actually experienced the story of A Clockwork Orange in any medium, I won’t spoil the plot here.

This ambitious production is not without its flaws. It has a strong ensemble cast who seem a bit uneven and tentative at times, as though a little under-rehearsed, faltering with some of the staging (the failure of a major technical effect didn’t help), especially at the scene changes. These were clunky, interminable blackouts that seem to bespeak a bit of directorial inelegance on the part of Frieda Lee, even though other elements of the production are impressive. On a similar note, the cast appeared to struggle a bit with the use of Nadsat – Burgess’ lexicon of appropriated slang that forms an almost new language – and their mumbling delivery of it at a lightning pace made a great deal of the droogs’ lines almost incomprehensible. Demerits for vocal coach Joshy Said.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for any production of A Clockwork Orange is trying to fill the pivotal role of Alex. This delicate balance which risks making the character either too attractive or insufficiently sympathetic makes it a decidedly challenging role. Peter Buck Dettmann is by no means a poor candidate, but I was nevertheless rather ambivalent about his performance of the role. He certainly looked the part and conveyed quite well the character’s creepy, slightly hypnotic qualities, as well as his sulky petulance, managing to be repellent yet also faintly endearing. Alex is also, however, a character of great highs and lows, manic intensity and inconsolable despair, and Dettmann’s portrayal failed to embody these extremes of the emotional spectrum. These shortcomings of his performance conspired with those of the staging to produce the occasional moment of squirm. The ending, in particular was quite weak, with an especially awkward final scene-change followed by some incongruous staging and the lukewarm delivery of what should have been a chilling final speech.

On the upside, this production utilises some particularly excellent production design, boasting probably the best set I’ve ever seen at the New. Although the explicit imagery of Maoist China is a somewhat heavy-handed evocation, the general feel of a faintly post-cyberpunk fascist dystopia crumbling into chaos is extremely tangible, and I heartily compliment James Croke and Anna Hughes for their splendid set and costume designs respectively. A particularly nice touch was the droogs’ knives being concealed in those hideous Bratz dolls, something I’ve always felt had deadly potential.

All in all, New Theatre’s production of A Clockwork Orange may be beset by some flaws, but hopefully they can be tightened up over the course of the run. It has some good things going for it and is certainly a play worth seeing.

new theatre presents
by Anthony Burgess

Venue: new theatre | 542 King Street Newtown NSW 2042
Dates: 28 August – 27 September
Times: Thursday – Saturday @ 8pm, Sunday @ 5pm 
Tickets: $27/$22   
Bookings: 1300 306 776 / www.mca-tix.com

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