Alexander G Wright’s company Belt Up (Nothing to see/hear) enjoys breaking theatrical boundaries. The Sunday Times described them as ‘aggressively participatory’ – the fourth wall being paper-thin at most. Audiences, then, have come to expect a physical theatre which antagonises them as it shocks.
But the opening night of A Clockwork Orange shocked more that it meant to. Alex Forsyth, playing the lead role of Alex, was hospitalised after the suicide-attempt scene went wrong. He had enthusiastically head-butted a wall and the audience were led early from the theatre, some members confused as to whether this was all part of the act.
Happily though, Forsyth recovered in time for the next day’s sold-out performance.
A Clockwork Orange is best known as Stanley Kubrick’s film classic, although it was first Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel. The stage version was also written by Burgess to “pre-empt other perversions with an authoritative rendering of my own” – after the film was banned in Britain, it naturally gathered a cult, amateur following.
Quickly, this performance was apparently far from amateur. Led in through the back entrance of the York Studio Theatre, the audience were warned about the violent content by Wright – just in case we had missed the posters outside.
A knock on the door, and we walked in to cries of “What’s it going to be then, eh?” – a question which I’m sure the audience were asking themselves as they were manhandled into their seats. The breaking up of audience groups lent a tone of menace to the gloomy room, smiles soon wiped off faces by the droogish ensemble.
Belt Up succeeded throughout the play with their spectacular dance-like fights, the first of which lasted – full cast on-stage – for around 6 minutes. Mark McDaid and Forsyth pushed themselves to convincing ultra-violence, but most impressive was when the whole ensemble fought on the packed stage, ducking and weaving to somehow avoid collision.
The cast clambered around the audience for the entire performance, causing embarrassment as they sniffed hair, stole glasses and even caused one poor spectator to vomit out of revulsion (one suspects this was a triumph!).
Disconcertingly, the play came to two abrupt stops for intervals. The cast approached the audience out of character, asking if we had their hats, gloves or a mirror so they could redo their face-paint. It was effective, I thought, though some thought it indulgent.
Forsyth was exceptionally convincing as Alex. It might be considered ambitious to compare him to Malcolm McDowell, but even that comparison is favourable. He brought a feigned naivety to the role emphasising, perhaps more than McDowell, Alex’s age – only fifteen.
His confidently middle-class nadsat was as convincing as McDowell’s northern version and a wonderfully corrupt grin as the Chaplain (Geoff Gedroyc) read his biblical notes was a joy to watch.
A minor criticism overall would be the costumes, which could have been more adventurous. The face-paint was effective, but the black gym-suits didn’t seem to live up to Burgess’s psychedelic fashion, even if they did make the fight scenes easier.
Ultimately, however, this production was a success. It shocked and stirred the audience but did not distract them from Burgess’s tale, which is ultimately about free-will. In perhaps the most disturbing scene, Dr Brodsky (Will Poskett) played with the audience’s arms, as if they were levers on his machine. The surreal Ludoviko film played out as Beethoven’s Ninth roared and Alex wept and gagged at the back of the stage. The rest of the cast mingled in the audience, retching themselves. We were violently immersed in A Clockwork Orange. And it worked.