Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange began life – as you probably don’t need reminding –as a controversial early Sixties novel, before becoming an even more controversial film, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Malcolm McDowell as the sociopathic leader of a group of teenagers prone to bouts of extreme violence. The film’s notoriety was only increased when Kubrick’s decision that it should be withdrawn meant that for nearly 30 years it was virtually impossible to see it.
Considerably less well known is the stage adaptation, written by Burgess in 1986. The play’s performed relatively infrequently, and the Liverpool Everyman’s new version is the first in the UK to also feature the music and songs Burgess wrote to accompany his script. It’s a bold, imaginative choice for the Everyman repertory company’s second season, and this thrilling, energetic production shows that Burgess’s moral fable has lost none of its power to shock, provoke and entertain (it’s sometimes forgotten that parts of A Clockwork Orange are very funny).
The play’s set in an indeterminate future when a corrupt, authoritarian society has only itself to blame for the problems it’s facing from an alienated, disaffected younger generation (ring any bells?). As gang leader Alex, George Caple captures well the complexity of a swaggering thug who’s also a dedicated Beethoven fan, and he succeeds in making Alex a surprisingly sympathetic character in the second half of the play. He and his band of ‘droogs’ show how cut off from the adult world they are by communicating with each other using ‘Nadsat’, a Russian influenced slang which adds further zest and flavor to the already sparky dialogue. The staging of the random violence they inflict on others (largely confined to the first few scenes) is certainly unsettling: it leaves little to the imagination and may be a bit much for some. If you’re not familiar with the film or the book I can imagine also that these early scenes might appear a bit of a confused blur, but the storyline does become clearer and stronger as the play develops.
A range of authority figures – a probation officer, doctors, policemen, a prison chaplain and a government minister – attempt to reform Alex, regarding him with varying degrees of malevolence and understanding. After he’s sent to jail he’s subjected to an experimental form of aversion therapy, intended to induce nausea at the mere thought of violence. Will it work, and what of the moral dilemmas it presents us with? How far should society be prepared to go to protect itself? If Alex becomes ‘good’, how real will be his goodness – is the chaplain right to argue that ‘When man cannot choose he ceases to be a man?’ And do we get the criminals we deserve? All questions still very much with us.
Most members of the cast take on several parts, demonstrating an impressive versatility. That fine actor Richard Bremmer takes on an especially wide variety of roles, including Alex’s probation officer, the chaplain, a nightclub crooner, a leftwing anti-government minister (whose attitude towards Alex is as mercenary and exploitative as his opposite number) and an exhausted waiter. As the chaplain he has some of the play’s key speeches, and in one memorable episode addresses the audience as if they are a prison population of ‘unrepentant sinners’. Phil Rayner garners plenty of laughs in roles that include Alex’s sidekick Dim, an aggressive teddy boy and a comical prisoner who’s heavily based on Jimmy Saville. Anthony Burgess’s atmospheric music, which draws heavily on Beethoven, is superbly performed by Peter Mitchell, deploying an assortment of instruments on a balcony at the back of the stage. The songs however seem rather lightweight (don’t expect any showstoppers), though they do make some of Burgess’s ideas more explicit. The set, primarily a sparse white metal frame, suggests a future that’s nightmarishly cold and brutal.
Judging by the enthusiastic response from a packed house this is a production that will appeal to a diverse crowd, from ageing radicals who remember the storms that originally surrounded the book and the film to their younger equivalents, curious to see what all the fuss was about. They’ll certainly all be in for a lively night.
**** An exhilarating trip to a mad, bad world
A Clockwork Orange continues at the Liverpool Everyman until 21 April, with further performances in May and July when it will alternate with other productions from the repertory company’s 2018 season.
Photos: Mark Brenner