A Clockwork Orange by Action to the Word (Pleasance Forth, Edinburgh Fringe Festival)
Approaching a stage production of A Clockwork Orange is to wrestle with many beasts, both philosophical and practical. Where to fall in terms of a nature/nurture argument? How violent is too violent? How to wrangle Nadsat into a dramatic dialogue? And how to banish the influence of that bowler hat and giant spider eyelash?
Action to the Word’s all-male cast go about the task with a brutal, elegant gusto that’s a sight to behold. Instead of coming down on one side or another they simply embrace it all, staring down contradictions with cheery malevolence from a bare stage. They allow themselves the occasional orange tie as a nod to extravagance, otherwise it’s all black, white and plenty of sweat-slicked muscles with which to dole out the ultraviolence.
Let’s handle that first, as from the off this production seethes with violent potential, which quickly turns into devastatingly accomplished reality. Yet it’s underscored with moments of surprising tenderness, cheek and a brave level of sexiness – tough to achieve amidst the brawling, tolchocking and genuinely shocking rape – that walk the tough line between cool and cruel without undermining the nastiness on display.
Likewise, Burgess’s Nadsat language is given sneering, sinuous life. In Martin McCreadie’s stunning rendition of Alex the futuro-slang becomes a musical growl, shot through with a Mancunian twang that anchors it as a gang lingo and transforms it from an intellectual exercise in linguistic ballet into a real and potent tongue. Instead of jarring it feels immediate and logical, as if these loping, fiendishly sexy creatures could never have spoken any other way – in many ways this triumph over the language is the greatest achievement of the production.
There are many other triumphs. A faultless ensemble brimming with the kind of kinetic energy that’s tiring just to remember, let alone watch; nuanced performances that ask questions without dictating answers and teasingly subvert the novel’s sexual order; and a carefully measured pace that ratchets up the horrorshow at the right moments without trying to keep it there. And not a bowler hat in sight.
If there’s a flaw, it’s perhaps in the insistence of adding a ripple of leering sexual danger to every interaction and relationship, which has the effect of numbing the potency of later encounters. (Or perhaps there are only so many violently flexed six-packs I can see before fearing for my life.) Either way, it’s a minor gripe, as this production maintains astonishing levels of consistency throughout. It should be required viewing at this year’s festival, a deadly dance that is as compelling as it is revolting and with a wicked gleam in the ensemble’s eye that lingers long after the stage has been mopped dry. Be sure to see it, but make sure you plan some time to have a sit down and catch your breath afterwards, because Action to the Word will absolutely be taking it away from you.