“To Machiavellian Capitalism- Boo Ya! Boo Ya! Boo Ya!” A Clockwork Orange at Theatre Royal Stratford East was a brave and bold retelling of Anthony Burgess’s seminal novel set in the semi-recognisable dystopia of the present day. When the prison chaplain mentions the eponymous Clockwork Orange in his speech about the perils of “The Technique”, the anti-crime treatment to which the protagonist Alex has submitted, it seems like he should be talking instead about a “Digital HD Orange”.
I have admiration for drive of the piece, and intention to update the story and give it contemporary relevance. It came across as a sensitive and well-considered retelling of a story with important questions about choice and responsibility in society, showing the government, the institution of parents and the family, prison, church and even the community as being ineffective against the will of somebody who has chosen to do wrong – whether he has a reason for it or not.
The play felt like it had a mission to stay true to the questions and themes of the original novel and attempted to bring up to date the style which made the Kubrick film so iconic. How well it succeeded in this mission is open to question; while I liked the idea of translating Alex’s ‘Droogs’ into modern day hoodie-wearing and Doc Marten-booted ‘Horrorshow ninjas,’ gang members who opened the piece wearing what looked like Barack Obama masks, it did seem to jar with the overly convoluted language. I felt that perhaps the attempt to make them seem like a case study on modern gangs would have fared better without too much of the source vocabulary, as with more weight on bringing in original language with a slighter nod to the original would have rung more true and sounded more convincing in the mouths of the actors, who seemed to take a little while to warm into the language. However I did enjoy the more contemporary moments where references to rap and performance poetry are made, and there were some very funny moments such as Alex calling his ‘Papapa’ “cro magnon”, and telling him “It’s French for father”.
Another original addition was a love story strand between Alex and a nightclub singer known as Pandora, or Joyce. Unfortunately, although I could see how including this new element to the storyline could have added more opportunities for Alex to feel empathy and to desire something outside of his ultraviolent lifestyle, I found the relationship unconvincing and a little two-dimensional.
My favourite characters were Alex’s parents (Susan Lawson Reynolds and Marcus Powell), as although they provided some laughs with a few irreverent lines, I found their upset and confusion about their son’s lifestyle choices formed the most convincing and thought-provoking scenes in the play. I also found the performance of the character Pete (Darren Hart) to be warm and truthful, and the sinister and breathy portrayal of the Buddhist serial killer cellmate Mustafa (Kirris Riviere) to be a rich and entertaining comic relief. Alex (Ashley Hunter in his debut) was handsome, edgy but not quite as commanding and nonchalant a presence as I would have liked. However he had potential and I expect his confidence to grow and create a stronger stage presence.
The traverse staging was effective and allowed the performers to run riot in the space, using the aisles to run amok through the audience. The glossy bright orange set (designed by Alex Lowde) with its different levels and hidden features that revealed snack bars, windows and stages was clever and seemed to reference 1960s functional design sensibility. The lighting (by Chris Davey) was also a great touch, with the frazzle of fluorescence indicating Alex’s struggle with the remnants of ultraviolence left in his soul after his exposure to ‘The Technique’. A live jazz score (directed by Fred Carl) was well executed but I didn’t feel really fit the atmosphere that the performers were creating, and I have to confess that I personally did not feel that the sung musical numbers added much to the piece, although I did enjoy the more comedic ones such as ‘Prison Friends (With Benefits)’.
Although I have respect and admiration for the intention behind updating the story and bringing in elements that would strike more of a chord with today’s audience I didn’t feel that the piece gelled entirely and that the performers didn’t fill the space enough with their voices. I think I went in expecting to be shocked and was a little afraid of what I might be confronted with, but in reality the violence was perhaps too safely choreographed and didn’t make the impact I was expecting. It was an ambitious and thought-provoking piece that hopefully will build up momentum as the run continues, and I think one that will split audiences down the middle as to the new elements that have been incorporated.
A Clockwork Orange is playing at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 1st October. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre Royal Stratford East website.