Theatre: Kubrick casts a shadow

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The Independent Culture


IT IS a testament to the continuing rawness of the nerves touched by Anthony Burgess's 36-year-old novel A Clockwork Orange that aspects of his treatment now seem dated. Given the quantity of theorising devoted to issues such as the roots of violence, the antipathy between individual autonomy and social order, and what to do with disaffected, under-occupied young men, it would be strange if the arguments had not moved on.

But it is a vindication, too, of the author's acuity of vision that his framing of these questions retains such power to trouble us, as it did Burgess himself. "I begin to accept," he wrote shortly before his death, in an article on the Jamie Bulger case, "that as a novelist, I belong to the ranks of the menacing."

The production, co-directed by Alan Lyddiard, head of the newly consolidated Northern Stage Company, and the dance artist Mark Murphy, translates this menace to the stage with rather too little ambiguity but tremendous visual style. Scenes are set and sets are suggested by the high-speed manipulation of wheeled metal screens and scaffolds, which combine with huge backdrop projections. The latter bombard us with magnified cinematic versions of the live action, deafeningly accompanied by music - from techno to Beethoven.

The more obvious period aspects of the allegory are retouched into an ironic dash of B-movie sci-fi schlock, expressed chiefly by some luridly cartoonish costumes and wigs. There's also a debt to the spirit of Stanley Kubrick in the semi-stylised savagery of the assault and gang-rape sequences which, at their adrenaline-fuelled strongest, deliver a genuinely sickening punch, though others seem over-extended and under-choreographed.

The loser in all this is Burgess's language, the invented futuristic patois of "nadsat" in which the narrator-protagonist, Alex, recounts his tale. Its blend of colloquial English with Russian, Shakespearean and other carefully bastardised borrowings is challenging enough on the page; but poorly projected from the stage, as it was too often here, though the rhythmic energy of Alex Elliot's delivery, in his namesake's lead role, contributed towards the overall driving momentum.

Yet it is through the language that we're drawn into the subtleties of Burgess's moral and philosophical investigation. And that is clearest in the gauntlet he throws down: is choosing to be bad better than being brainwashed into behaving yourself? This level of complexity is pretty much precluded by the production's emphasis on scale and sensory impact, which ultimately undermines the story's deeper and more lingering reverberations.

Touring UK-wide until 28 November, also spring 1999