A Clockwork Orange (Brisbane Arts Theatre)
Brisbane Arts Theatre
January 6 – February 7
Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, which is part of the final movement of his last, and arguably most famous symphony, Symphony No. 9, composed in 1824, is a thorough examination of the emotion of joy as being heavenly in origin and available to mankind through a loving God. In “A Clockwork Orange”, however, it represents a thematic extension of 15-year-old protagonist Alex’s psychological conditioning. As the vicious leader of a gang of criminals who beat, rob and rape, he is the antithesis of society. Such is the provocative premise of the classic confronting 1962 short novel by prolific writer Anthony Burgess.
It is the repressive totalitarian super-state England of the future where the despicable Alex gives free rein to his violent impulses and thus is jailed for bludgeoning a lady to death. Here, he volunteers for an experimental aversion treatment (the Ludovico Technique) to earn his freedom and is conditioned to abhor violence so that, returned to the world defenceless, he becomes the prey of his prior victims. The controversial work is a bold choice as a season opener, but a rewarding one due to its experimental nature. Even with a cast of 17, multiple roles are often required. More notably though, each performance alternates between male and female droogs (to use the novel’s teenage slang narration, which incorporates elements of Russian and Cockney English).
The result of the gender-blind casting is negotiable. The narrative’s ultra-violence may not be as potent in the changes, but it is still shocking. In female cast rotation, however, it becomes Melanie Bolovan’s show, not just narratively but through her blistering performance within the physically demanding role. Not only is she excellent in the torture scenes that show shades of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and its Room 101, but her changed physicality as the character morphs from foul-mouthed thug to reformed formal criminal with an instinctive abhorrence to violence, shows incredible nuance and an energy to which audience members cannot help but respond.
The use of comedy to slightly lessen the blow of its strong themes is also appreciated, although sometimes jarring. Although sexually aggressive, Alex is a cheekily charismatic criminal. Humour also comes from obvious malpropisms like referring to the Minister of the Interior who determines that Ludovico’s technique will be used to reduce recidivism, as Minster of the Inferior. But even with a bit of “Weekend and Bernie’s” ‘corpse’ comedy and a chorus line of a different sort, it doesn’t always feel right to laugh given the prevalence of its simulated and alluded to extreme violence.
Although it could have been tighter in terms of timing, there is much to appreciate about this production of “A Clockwork Orange”. Simple staging sees an imposing clockwork clog providing occasional nook into which characters cranny. And in on-stage realisation, the narrative is much easier to follow that in its original novel form.
Certainly, female actors in the principal roles bring an alternate-night new perspective to the brutal dystopian satire. Although still chilling and confronting, however, this take appears more fable than extravagant story, which gives it a unique appeal and enhanced resonance of its big moral themes around goodness, evil, self-control, and the individual versus society. With such as strong start to the year, one can only await the eclectic mix of shows to follow as the 2018 unfolds.