Set in a dystopian England of gang violence, authoritarian rule and Russian-influenced slang, A Clockwork Orange follows the story of teenage delinquent Alex, who asserts himself the only way he knows how – by being nastier than everyone in the world around him. The play follows his demise: from life as an erratically aggressive gang leader to a helpless prisoner. Insisting his moral superiority to his fellow inmates, Alex volunteers to be subject to a new treatment, which if successful, promises to cure him of his criminal ways. Following his release, the story then explores the various consequences of the treatment: the political success and then scandal, the morality of ridding a boy of his free will, and the false promise of a normal life for Alex himself. The narrative has a Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque futuristic gothic feel, where we are constantly reminded of the injustices imposed on people by a callous and brutalising regime. Having said that, the play resists the temptation to be preachy in its politics, preferring to emphasise the immorality of Alex’s ordeal.
A Clockwork Orange is by far the hardest production I’ve seen attempted by a student theatre company. Creating an atmosphere as gritty and dark as the play demands is incredibly difficult. Some of the more violent scenes make for intentionally uncomfortable viewing, in order to make the audience yearn for justice at any cost. The cast and production team must also communicate the nuances of Alex’s predicament: although he is a rapist and a murderer, should he be robbed of the right to make his own decisions? Presenting all this is incredibly challenging, but the Exeter University Theatre Company pulls it off spectacularly, thanks to a stellar cast and direction by Florrie Taylor and Alex Benjamin.
Tom O’Kelly’s portrayal of Alex deserves a special mention. The role involves both committing and being subject to various violent acts. In particular, being tortured and having your very biochemistry altered is something hard to show on stage, but O’Kelly does a flawless job. Alex undergoes several radical transformations of character, but the audience is never left unconvinced by his behaviour. Another noteworthy role is James Murphy’s prison Chaplain, who is often the lone voice of reason in a story where most of the characters are thoroughly immoral. The Chaplain pleads with Alex and the Minister of the Interior (James Murphy), warning of the dangers of the mind-altering Ludovico Technique. Even as his religious ethics have little resonance, Murphy nevertheless plays a lovable wise sage.
The best parts of A Clockwork Orange were where Alex was wrestling with the consequences of his choices, such as the scenes where he is in the lab with the megalomaniac genius, Dr Brodsky (Laura Jackson). The doctor is a classic villain, promoting the benefits of causing immense suffering to a teenager and ridding him of his free will for the alleged benefit of society. She forces him to watch a series of horrific crimes, even a part of The Holocaust, which combined with the effects of various drugs, will make him nauseous any time he considers committing violence. As Alex realises the living hell he has consented to living in, the conflict between him, Dr Brodsky and the nicer Dr Branom (Anna Blackburn) is gloriously played out. However, it was engaging scenes like this that were a little too frequently interrupted with prolonged fights between gang members and impressive but lengthy dancing. The play could benefit from being a tad shorter, tightening some of the scenes, allowing for the story’s essential message to be delivered even more effectively.
Overall, A Clockwork Orange is a stellar production, and well worth seeing. The story is intriguing, unique, and ceaselessly engaging. The cast are extraordinarily talented in every respect – amongst the very best in the world of university theatre. They play a wide array of imaginative and nuanced characters, who never fall into the trap of fulfilling stereotyped roles. Be warned, the production is not for the faint-hearted. But if you love futuristic thrillers, coming-of-age stories with a dark twist, or are simply looking for something original, then EUTCO’s latest offering is a must-see.
– Owen Bell
EUTCO’s A Clockwork Orange will be at the Exeter Northcott Theatre on 17th – 20th January 2018 at 7:30pm.
Tickets are £15 (conc. £12), available from: https://exeternorthcott.co.uk/calendar/a-clockwork-orange/ or via telephone at 01392 72 63 63.
Images courtesy of EUTCO.