When I think “A Clockwork Orange” disturbingly wanton violence and sex, violent sex at that, come to mind. So when I heard that Anthony Burgess’ 1962 dystopian novella was being adapted as a stage musical with an all-black cast… Great! Not. Young black men marauding, raping and pillaging sounds like any right-wing thinker’s wet dream, ripe for hate-fueled, fear-mongering, divisive propaganda. However, Theatre Royal Stratford East in London decided to tackle such a scenario and, with the recent riots that rocked some of the nation’s cities still fresh on our minds, and with socio-political rhetoric still ringing in our ears – most commentary surreptitiously laying the blame at black youths, while one white historian openly blamed black culture – my ambivalence about seeing this play swayed between dread and cautious optimism.
My cautious optimism sprang from the fact that the adaptation was being written by Ed DuRanté, someone I’ve been an online acquaintance of for about four years, and who I know primarily as a filmmaker, particularly with regard to his membership of 6 Leagues. 6 Leagues is a collective of NYU alumni filmmakers whose 2008 film, Six Things I Never Told You, a thematically linked collection of six short films that explore black love and sexuality without actually showing sex, we’ve featured on S&A. So, an African-American who started writing the play in New York a year ago, long before the London riots, and who is open to the practice of nuanced explorations of taboo and/or possibly inflammatory subjects. Phew! DuRanté was brought onto the project by Fred Carl, another African-American and the play’s composer and musical director, who was DuRanté’s professor at the New York University/Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, and who has co-led a musical theatre-writing program at Theatre Royal Stratford East since 1999.
However, this doesn’t take away from the fact that A Clockwork Orange is a very violent story and can only really be portrayed as such if you wish to relay the same story and its themes, even by deviating in any way from the original. The story revolves around Alex (Ashley Hunter), a clever, well-spoken young man with high cultural tastes, and member of a gang of four who revel in violence for the sake of violence – ultra-violence. Alex leads the gang, George (Jack Shalloo, though this role is usually played by Sonny Muslim) is his right hand man/second in command, Dim (Raphael Sowole) is the cerebrally challenged muscle of the group while Pete (Darren Hart), the easy-going lover of violence, is the group’s peace-keeper. However, as in any group, regardless of the cause or common interest that brings its members together, power struggles ensue, leading to its fragmentation and eventual downfall.
The first instance of a fracture in the group leads to Alex being sent to prison for murder. Here he goes from being Alex, eloquent, high-minded, morally unscrupulous leader of the pack, to being prisoner 6655321, a vulnerable newbie in a hub of violence and exploitation the manner of which he could formerly only have visited upon others but never experience himself. He needs out! Soon! Freedom takes on a whole new urgency and he devises a way to get himself onto a new government scheme to rehabilitate or “cure” violent offenders, even after being warned by the prison Chaplin that this scheme is the government’s quick-fix chemical panacea which, far from addressing the root of violent behaviour, merely seeks to make clockwork oranges of its subjects/patients, leaving them without the ability to make conscious moral choices of their own volition. However, Alex gets his wish and is “cured” and set free. The Chaplin was right, however – his freedom is only superficial and amounts to lingering psychological torture. His violent urges remain but he’s left powerless to act on them, writhing instead in pain and patheticness as some of his former victims take their revenge, leaving him a whimpering wreck of his former self.
Not so much having seen the error of his ways but perhaps realising that life is a sequence of choices, and after learning of the various routes taken by his former gang members, Alex has to make a conscious choice, to decide which path he’d like his life to take from this point onwards.
Thanks to Stanley Kubrik’s 1971 film adaptation, seemingly innocuous yet vividly iconic images of sartorially strange young men in bowler hats drinking milk still has the power to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. The more polite the images might initially seem, the more chilling the prospect of what’s to come. As with the book, there is no milk, or bowler hats, in DuRanté’s play; there isn’t any sex either, well, there is, but not where you expect it if you're familiar with Burgess' book or Kubrik's film (which left me initially confused and then curious to see how the climax would be reached), and, true to form, it isn’t depicted.
In this production, the style of dress is conventionally urban youth – jeans, trainers (sneakers) or doc martens, t-shirts, hoodies and bomber jackets. Nothing special, nothing outstanding, but somehow menacing nonetheless. In keeping with both the book and urban youth culture, a manner of speech is adopted which, while not familiar, its connotation is easily grasped if you stick with the emotion rather than actually trying to figure out its denotation word for word. And there’s lots of emotion – highly charged, testosterone driven emotion, pumped by youthful male exuberance that knows no bounds and yet is somehow contained in a very small performance space that eschews the traditional convention of an audience looking in on the action from a fourth wall. The audience is split in half, one half facing the other, each half seeing the performance from a different perspective and, with no elevated platform, you’re generally either sat at the same level as the performers or looking down from above, though, occasionally, you do have to look up as the action takes place vertically as well as horizontally, putting to very good use the small performance area, making it seem larger than it at actually is. The effect is a dynamic intensity that makes up for the stark sets – no painted backdrops and most scenes relying on just one set piece: a chair, a swing, a bed – leaving a vivid impression nonetheless.
Of course, all this would be difficult to achieve without a cast that can pull it off, and this cast does. The performance of Hunter, who plays Alex, is all the more impressive when you learn that this is his first gig out of stage school at Central School of Speech and Drama. Another cast member for whom this was a first professional acting role since leaving drama school is Vanessa Sylvester who played Joyce, a character who at first seems like a potential love interest but turns out to be an anchor and voice of reason for Alex during the course of the play. Most of the cast (which includes Susan Lawson Reynolds, Richard Lloyd King, Marcus Powell, and Kirris Riviere) double-up in smaller second roles, and they all possess a self-assuredness that doesn’t come off as too showy or cheesy.
In fact, if musicals are not your thing then this is one that won’t leave you groaning every time someone clears their pipes to belt out a tune. Even as someone who is partial to the odd musical from time to time, it sometimes irks me when I’m dragged out of the drama by a song which only seems to serve the purpose of showcasing the singing talent (or not) of the cast, or exuberant indulgence of the composer/musical director, rather than spur the action along. What helps in this production is that, while the drama is, indeed, punctuated by songs, they don’t feel like they’re breaking up the drama. They’re delivered in the least “show-tunes” way I’ve seen for a while, possibly ever; no jazz-hands, no high-kicks, no grinning and peering at the audience to drive the lyrics home. For the most part, the songs enhance the mood of the moment and are delivered in the tone in which the moment is set, which means that that jarring, uncomfortable, “oh no, they’re singing again” feeling is averted. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the live four piece jazz band that performs all the play’s music and sound effects to enchanting yet not overwhelming effect.
In fact, it was the combination of the music and the songs which helped indulge the necessary violence which unfolds in the play without flinching from the action. The choreographed beatings and humiliations, replete with rhythmic slow-motion bounces and reactions, made the impact of the violence felt without resorting to graphic realism.
All in all, my initial ambivalence at the prospect of seeing this play were allayed by an artful script which, in some quite significant respects, deviates from Burgess’ novella but which still manages to successfully tell the same story and impress upon its audience the same themes without subverting the original source material. Dawn Reid, the play’s director, managed to harness a very macho and masochistic monster of a tale without emasculating its dominantly male cast or daring to stare it directly in the eye. In case you haven't guessed already, I really liked it.
It’s worth mentioning that the race of the cast is actually irrelevant as this same adaptation could be played by a cast of any ethnicity, or mixture of ethnicities. In fact, on the night I saw it, George was played by a young white actor with a strong singing voice who added a plausible multicultural dimension commonly seen in gangs of British urban youth. Race is never mentioned in the play and, while ethnicity obvious provides some nuanced overtones here and there (Alex's parents are played as proudly British West Indians, something I'm guessing the actors brought to the play rather than the script), I see no reason why this same play couldn’t be performed anywhere in the world with a local cast, to similar effect.
In the meantime, for those of you in London, A Clockwork Orange is on at Theatre Royal Stratford East until October 1st and you can visit their website HERE for more information.