A Clockwork Orange: A Play with Music is clearly a labour of love for director Nick Bagnall. Enthralled by both the original book (by Anthony Burgess) and an RSC production in the late ‘80s, Bagnall was especially excited to discover that Burgess had himself written original songs to accompany the stage version – based, of course, on his protagonist’s love of Beethoven. Bagnall’s Everyman production foregrounds this music (adapted by James Fortune) and claims to be the first properly to realise Burgess’s vision.
And the music is excellent. It is brilliantly performed by Peter Mitchell and creates exactly the intended dissonance between the violence of the onstage action and the beauty of the soundtrack – particularly effective when the brutality is juxtaposed with the delicacy of the glockenspiel and xylophone. Complemented by some very tight, musical-hall-style choreography (by Etta Murfitt), the dark, satirical tone is very effectively established.
What is most striking about this production, however, is the design (by Molly Lacey Davies and Jocelyn Meall). Opening on an apparently bare white platform within a cube marked by four white ladder-like pillars, it appears simple, stark and clinical. When Alex and his ‘droogs’ enter, they are dressed in crisp white boiler suits and codpieces – all made eerily brighter under ultraviolet lighting – with black knee-socks and boots, horribly evocative of Nazi storm troopers. Then, as the action develops, a whole below-stage dimension reveals itself. Characters emerge from a trapdoor on one side of the stage and exit – often comedically – down a slide under a second trapdoor on the other side. Meanwhile, in the centre of the stage, an open box-like structure ascends and descends, enabling both another entrance/exit point and providing a raised platform. It is an ingenious design, introducing different levels and visual complexity but always allowing a return to the stark, unforgiving bright white cube. Kay Haynes’ lighting design plays a huge role in creating the pitiless feel of the piece, and is especially powerful when flooding the stage in red light and chilling images during Alex’s aversion therapy. The result of all this is a production that gives us an astonishingly rich visual experience.
Bagnall’s direction delights in both the sinister and the comedic. As the play opens, Alex and his droogs prowl silently around the stage, only then to slither up and down the white pillars and hang there, menacingly, like snakes about to strike. Later, the ineffectual prison governor is represented by a puppet, operated with deliberate amusement and contempt by the government minister. And, in an instance of particularly bad taste (and therefore entirely fitting to a play which attacks every sensibility), one of the inmates has an “I am a pedo” label hanging around his neck and sports long white hair and a big cigar. It is horrible and absurd in equal measure.
While I admire and enjoy the theatricality of the piece, ultimately the content of A Clockwork Orange fails to engage or satisfy me. My experience is definitely hampered in the first act by some poor sound quality such that I can’t make out many of the song lyrics or significant portions of the dialogue. This means that I miss a lot of the intended rhythm of the piece and what I do hear feels disjointed and somewhat obscure. Additionally, in the second act there is rather too much clumsy exposition around the (albeit central and very interesting) issue of the merits of moral agency versus ‘good behaviour’. The net result of all this is that I end up feeling detached from the narrative.
A Clockwork Orange is a play which will not be to everyone’s taste – and it was not to my own. However, this production is undeniably a spectacle, and one which has harnessed the energies of an extraordinary creative team. I was very fortunate to attend an open rehearsal of the production held at the Burgess Foundation, where the commitment and excitement of the cast, director and choreographer were very evident. I am delighted to see that wonderful messy creativity come to polished fruition at the Everyman Theatre.