In light of the current political climate, dystopias seem both relevant (“A Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu) and fashionable (“1984” at the Hudson Theatre). That’s why a resurgence of “A Clockwork Orange” comes as no surprise. But this adaptation, which is a play with music by Antony Burgess (who also wrote the novel), is more subtle in its message. Unlike the statement about censorship in “1984” or women’s bodies/rights in “A Handmaid’s Tale,” this play deals with gang violence, toxic masculinity, the penal system, and government interests. This production, directed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones at New World Stages, lean into the political nature of the work, exploring important themes without shoving an overt message down the throats of the audience.
“A Clockwork Orange” tells the story of Alex (played by Jonno Davies) who leads a gang of teenage boys who use their own language, feud with other street gangs, go in and out of jail, take drugs dissolved in milk, and violently assault, rape, beat, and murder whoever they want. Eventually Alex gets arrested and thrown into jail where he volunteers for a program that will expedite his release: the Ludovico Technique, a new type of intense therapy the reprograms people to be physically repulsed by lewd sexuality or violence. The technique works too well on Alex, who has become completely devoid of free will, begging the question, what should we do with criminals? Throw them in jail forever or try to “cure” them with government-sanctioned psychological treatments?
This production is noteworthy for its all male cast, with each of the actors (other than Davies) taking on many roles, from gang members, to victims, to scientists, to government officials, to parents. But it is not the gender of the cast that makes the show most memorable, it is the almost distractingly perfect physique of all the actors. The show is incredibly physical and involved quite a bit of movement, dance, and stylized stage combat–which works beautifully within the overall experimental style of the piece. So although the actors certainly needed to be fit, the never-ending abs, pecs, and biceps seem almost like overkill.
However, in defense of the muscles: the director used the all male cast and their beautiful bodies to emphasize the blatant homoeroticism not only of this play, but of violent masculinity in general. The cast was incredibly sexy and the show was incredibly sexual, but in a way that argued that violent and vapid sexuality was a part of our current conceptions of masculinity. Besides being nice to look at, the cast did a spectacular job proving the terrifying connections between sex and violence in our society.
Particular praise goes, of course, to Davies, who was at the helm of the entire production and never wavered in his powerful, terrifying, and raw performance. Credit should also be given to the entire cast, who spoke almost entirely in the made-up dialect of the teenagers but always ensured that their speech was still understandable. The design of the play, with costumes by Jennifer Jacob, sound by Emma Wilk, and lighting by James Baggaley, created an incredibly dark atmosphere, covered entirely in black and white with radiating accents of orange (lest we forget what the title and central symbol is).
What has made this production rather divisive for audience members is not the male model cast (which seems to be universally adored) but the experimental staging and style. However, it is the bold experimentation that makes this production so haunting, terrifying, political, and beautiful. The stylized violence, omnipotent oranges and glasses of milk, the fractured scenes, the techno-classical music, and the quadruple casting are what makes this production so powerful and effective. “A Clockwork Orange” tells a story that needs to be told and does so with a raw honesty that is certainly remarkable.