There are, as I see it, two obstacles to a theatrical adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange: the first, and most important, is to make sure that Nadsat, the Joycean, English/Russian hybrid slang he invented for his teenaged characters, is clearly understood. All those viddies and warbles can be confusing for an audience when the context does not make the meaning clear. The second obstacle is to subvert expectations. I have no interest in reliving the most famous episodes from Burgess’ novel or Stanley Kubrick’s film. So recognizable, A Clockwork Orange must be made new.
On the first count, this adaptation by Burgess himself succeeds fairly well. Nadsat is a dynamic language, and the cast here does an admirable job of bringing it to life; the challenge is not unlike that of the contemporary Shakespearean actor who wants to avoid stilted delivery. There is, for example, the moment when Alex deLarge (Jonno Davies) refers the speech of his elected official (Jimmy Brooks) as “governating,” a wonderful portmanteau that, in Mr. Davies’ mouth, rings with both subservience and derision. But the more inscrutable words, like horrorshow (good) and cutter (money), are equally accessible.
On the second count, too, A Clockwork Orange passes muster. The proceedings are largely episodic and impressionistic, requiring knowledge of the text or film to follow. Burgess highlights the queer undertones of his novel, with an all-male cast occasionally dressing up as women and occasionally kissing men without the cover of a dress. Sporting neo-fascist haircuts, their manic attraction to violence spills over into the erotic, and there is the suggestion that Alex’s salvation is only possible through a more loving gay relationship. The uniformity of appearance also allows for some nice mirroring, as when Alex faces the governor, giving the impression that he is the gutter reflection of the other’s own political and moral bankruptcy. Furthermore, Mr. Davies smartly avoids doing a second-rate Malcolm McDowell impression; Mr. McDowell’s Alex was sinister and smiling, like some reptilian creature that remains perfectly still until it snaps you in half. Mr. Davies, on the other hand, is more energized, more muscular, an Eddie Haskell turned evil.
Still, the whole thing doesn’t quite hang together. Its ninety minutes, especially at such adrenaline-pumping speed, should pass effortlessly, and yet after an hour or so the play begins to drag, becoming thematically monotonous. Ultimately, it most resembles a music video, and, at least for now, I prefer my Clockwork Orange on the page and screen than on the stage.
A Clockwork Orange runs through December 2nd at New World Stages. 340 West 50th Street New York, NY. 1 hour 30 minutes. No intermission.