Playing With Words

This week I have been to see (with lots of students) A Clockwork Orange, an adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novella, staged by UK-based company, Action To The Word. Nothing unusual in that, of course, but it did raise a number of questions for me and my students. But before I go any further have a look as these two videos to put the post in context:

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Firstly I should say that I did enjoy it. It was a great attempt to put something on stage that would otherwise be difficult to do, simply because the sheer level of ultra-violence and sexual violence in the narrative. Secondly, I have to say this as it has a bearing on what I am about to write, I was sitting in the gods (gallery) and had forgotten my glasses, so may have missed a few subtleties.

Clockwork Orange - Action to the Word

This production is an all male one. Single gender companies and casts are very much in vogue at the moment, allowing directors to explore narrative themes that are perhaps not foremost in an original work. In essence I have no problem with this – this is theatre at its most dynamic – theatre as a vehicle to reflect what is interesting to the director and company, and even as a mirror to contemporary societal shifts and passions. However, I was left wondering whether, when you stray away too far from a writer’s original intent, are you indeed putting on, in this case, A Clockwork Orange or a different play altogether.

In her programme/play bill notes, Alexandra Spencer-Jones, the plays director says

My company was rehearsing Romeo and Juliet [when] I decided to bring A Clockwork Orange to the stage……People think of R & J as a beautiful and tragic love story….for me it is much more than that….my main interest came into the role of Romeo ‘as a man’ upholding male responsibility when his friend Mercutio is killed and becoming (sadly) what he hates – a Montague fighter. With this in mind I spent much time concentrating on the fights and the role of testosterone in Shakespeare. Romeo – an angel with rage just under the skin. In the same actor who was in the role at the time, I found this storage balance – can the audience love someone they are scared of, sympathise with a villain – cry for him when he suffers. I was desperate to find out and A Clockwork Orange provided such a character and such a story to experiment.

Clockwork Orange - Action to the Word

It was from this concept, and the fact that I primarily direct men in the Shakespeare company, that I decided to workshop the piece as all male. Suddenly it was to a piece about women being objectified and raped, it was a piece about power and manipulation of all people, dictatorship and youth.

And I suppose this is what I saw this week. The narrative is indeed transformed, but into one that has blunt homoerotic overtones that don’t exist in Burgess’ original and therefore I have to question whether what we watched should still be ‘sold’ as A Clockwork Orange.

Clockwork Orange - Action to the WordAs I said earlier, I appreciated the piece and there were some excellent moments. But should a director be able to take way a central theme, such as the objectification of women, and claim they are staging the same play? I have subsequently had this conversation with some friends and students and we came to no real conclusion….seemingly just left with a nagging doubt that we had seen something other than that which we were expecting.

This also led to some self-examination on my part. As a theatre maker I like taking an original work and exploring certain themes in more depth while relegating others in terms of importance. A few years ago I staged a version of Lord of the Flies which did just this. I have never really thought about the proprietary nature of doing this as part of the creative process, but having experienced what I have this week, it has made question myself a little.

Another question that this particular production raised for me was whether, when one sees a physical theatre re-interpretation or re-imagining of a novel, is there a need to have read the original to make sense of the new work? Do you need to hold on to the depths and nuances of the novel in order to give depth and nuance to the new work? In this case, the reaction of my students would seem to indicate yes. Of course any adaptation from one form to another takes on this conundrum, whether it is from book to stage or screen, but it is a question worth considering I feel.

"A Clockwork Orange"

The other major question that was raised for me was one of venue choice. Here in Hong Kong, the piece was staged in the Lyric Theatre, a 1200 seater, traditional space. Thankfully we have a handful of new production companies in the city who are increasingly bringing in significant and worthy pieces. However, I was left feeling that the decision to put this particular production onto one of the two main stages we have in the city was a mistake. This was confirmed when I started to read the reviews of the original stagings in the UK. The venues there were small and intimate – 150 seaters or so.  This made sense of the reviews for me – you can read a couple here and here – where the critic had clearly had a very experience to my own. The intent behind the direction was clearly to create a piece of theatre that was visceral and arresting, but when you are sat a long way from the stage, this is lost – as it was for us. A shame, as I think, especially given that the audience in the stalls was sparse and the four international schools in attendance seemed to be crammed in to the gallery and balcony. This fact could of course lead to a whole new post about theatre pricing and the real value given by production companies to fostering the next generation of theatre goers…..but that one is for another day.

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