Writer: Anthony Burgess
Director: Alexandra Spencer-Jones
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
If you could end violence forever by adjusting someone’s personality, would you? Even if it meant that the criminal lost their own humanity, and would that make you as barbaric as them? These debates were given voice by Anthony Burgess’ controversial 1962 novel, which became the equally controversial 1971 Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange, and go to the very heart of debates about our justice system – should we take an eye for an eye, or is reform and rehabilitation the answer?
Glynis Henderson Productions and Action to the Word have designed a spellbinding and visceral account of Burgess’ story currently playing at the Park Theatre. Teenager Alex and his gang, who he calls Droogs, spend their nights roaming the streets of Manchester looking for opportunities for crime that frequently turn to violence. After a particularly savage rampage Alex is taken to prison but shows no sign of remorse until a controversial new treatment offers to rid him of his vicious impulses, but at a cost.
This astonishing production effortless combines Burgess’ twisted tale with a vibrant and thrilling visual style that grips from the start and barely lets go for its 90 minute run time. Throbbing with menace, Alex and his gang stylishly march onto the stage and immediately engage in an anarchic and intimidating choreographed fight that merges strong movements from the Paso Doble with a sense of escalating chaos. Director Alexandra Spencer-Jones and choreographer Hannah Lee constantly mix soft, often balletic, movements with harder impact and slow motion approaches, hallmarks of this production, to emphasise the joy the gang take from their activities. It is always shocking but never repetitive as numerous attacks take place.
This combination of straight narrative scenes with stylised montage sections is cleverly managed by Spencer-Jones, allowing the audience to see time passing or significant events occurring without pages of unnecessary dialogue. Stand-out moments include Alex’s court appearance which is entirely mimed and bathed in yellow light with provoking music, intercut with Alex’s internal struggles to maintain his composure. Similarly an excellent fight sequence covers his two years in prison as he evolves from weak target to powerful leader.
Central to the success of A Clockwork Orange is Jonno Davies’ fantastically complex performance as Alex. He begins with a charismatic swagger that is full of threat, and it soon becomes clear that violence thrills him, that it sates something he cannot control. But as events turn against him, and despite his uncompromising surety at the start, he elicits a flicker of sympathy from the audience for his treatment and its consequences which makes this production so fascinating. But Davies’ success is in combining Alex’s interior life with an impressive physical performance, flexing his physique to initially intimidate others but later using his whole body to show how fear and disgust ripple through him, tearing him apart.
There is impressive support from a large ensemble cast in multiple roles, which are distinct for the most part. Simon Cotton is notable as Brodsky the driven doctor who leads Alex’s treatment – which adds to the central ambiguity about punishment or reform – while Philip Honeywell plays a number of authority figures with the same face that suggests how Alex sees the world. The ensemble as a whole help to create a sense of the confusion and tension around Alex that adds considerably to the atmosphere and escalating drama.
There are very minor niggles and being an in-the-round production actors too often stand in the sight-lines of the audience making it impossible to see some key events, while the representation of female characters by this all-male cast is two-dimensional and a little clichéd. Nevertheless, this production of A Clockwork Orange is a brutal and bristling experience that captivates, torments and astounds from the start. Whether we are driven by nature or nurture and can “cure” personality defects, Spencer-Jones’ show forces you to consider some unpalatable ideas – are Alex’s violent attacks are the height of immorality or is the clinical experimentation he suffers that turns him into a Frankenstein’s monster much worse?
Runs until 18 March 2017 | Image: Contributed