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What is it to be a man? Review of Action to the Word’s A Clockwork Orange

“What is it to be a man?” might sound like a silly question in an era still fighting for female equality, but Action to the Word’s Company Director, Alexandra Spencer-Jones is asking it with good reason. Anthony Burgess’s classic dystopian novella asked many questions about alpha maleism, male behaviour and governmental intervention in the sixties, but Spencer-Jones has taken things one step further with her all male cast, challenging stereotypes and prejudices that exist for boys today.

 Don’t be put off by the weakly symbolic Beethoven-dub step mash up on repeat as you enter the Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre. As if the all male cast hadn’t already given away the fact that this is a modern production. But then again there is nothing subtle about an ultra-violent gang of youths who whimsically rape and assault whomever they please.

 What the music does do well, however, is disorient you as you enter the confusing teenage world of 15 year old protagonist, Alex DeLarge (Martin McCreadie). Add to this the school theatre-like bleacher seating with their black metal railings, and there is a sense that you are being made to feel like you are part of the action. Yes, the stage setting may be a little obvious, but with almost no further clues offered from props, costume and an interchanging cast of ten who play 23 characters, a little ‘obvious’ is a little necessary.

 The characters speak Nadsat – a bizarre language made up of English slang and Russian, and while a Nadsat dictionary is provided with the program, it’s more of a token than a help. This unfamiliar language, the lack of narration and the minimalist stage design, mean that this adaptation finds it hard to stand up alone. However, with at least some knowledge of Burgess’s novella and/or Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, it is a clever and provocative reactionary performance.

 The play opens slowly with Alex and his Droogs creeping onto the stage. Their ominous presence is suspenseful while you wait from them to drink their famous milk drug cocktails and begin wreaking the obligatory anarchistic chaos. McCreadie, as Alex, immediately commands the stage and the Droogs, speaking in a crazed and melodic voice.

 McCreadie is the only cast member to play just the one character. His performance is both visceral and beautiful. On stage for the full performance (yes, no interval), his Alex is all sweat, spit and pulsing neck veins. Yet McCreadie also lends an alluring fragility and a sad interiority to the character, drawing us into Alex’s madness and suffering. It is this shrewd and intelligent performance which elicits the crucial pity and forgiveness necessary to eventually redeem his character’s violent behaviour. A redemption which Burgess famously accused Kubrick of omitting from his famous film adaptation.

 Kubrick’s shocking and spectacular film, with its blatant and glorifying images of violence, not only misinterpreted Burgess’s intent, but gained notoriety after it was banned in Briatin for 27 years. With this fame, A Clockwork Orange has become associated more with the violent film adaptation and less with Burgess’s redemptive coming of age story. Company director Alexandra Spencer-Jones has stated that this production is a truer, stricter adherence to Burgess’s intended text. The choice, then, to dress the cast in black and not the iconic Kubrick white, is a thoughtful tip of the hat to Burgess, and one that should be acknowledged.

 The violence, however, is not absent. Not by any means. Portraying ultra-violence on stage can easily descend into wanton gore or slapstick comedy, but Spencer-Jones clearly draws on her Shakespearean theatre background to . She understands the desensitisation of a media infused population, whose eyes are numb to ubiquitous images of violence. So she does something instead to make us think: it dances. It is simultaneously horrific and beautiful. Elegantly choreographed rape, jetes and pirouettes that land in bruising assaults will ask you to question your attitude towards violence and your – our – complicity in the endemic attitudes we have fostered towards violent criminals.

 Despite its adherence to Burgess, the production is still modern and fresh. The rich use of music during the play, from Pink Floyd to The Scissor Sisters, backdropped to the violent dance scenes is clever and profound. Attitudes to youth violence in the seventies are still prevalent today, and still worth a comment.

 This deeply political adaptation is heavily reliant on its intertextuality, but it needs to be seen. If only to leave you with that ominous feeling that beneath our polished, politically correct facade, there still lurk the same familiar prejudices and dystopian qualities that Burgess exposed in the sixties.

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