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Rewinding ‘A Clockwork Orange’ : The old ultra-violence worked as a book and a movie, so why not as a play with music by U2? That was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s idea. London audiences call it ‘horrorshow,’ but to critics it’s just a horror.

The words currently being spoken by Royal Shakespeare Company actors from the stage of the Barbican Theatre are not words the Bard of Stratford would have recognized as any form of English.

Droogs. Viddy. Rassoodock. Real Horrorshow.

But devotees of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel, “A Clockwork Orange,” and the 1971 movie of the book by Stanley Kubrick, will be familiar with the language--a teen-age slang called “nadsat,” devised by Burgess from elements of English and Russian. In this strange tongue, “droogs” are friends, to “viddy” is to see, “rassoodock” is the mind and “horrorshow,” surprisingly, means really good.

Two decades after the movie’s violence precipitated heated and widespread controversy in Britain, the work--its title now amended by Burgess to “A Clockwork Orange 2004"--is being produced as a play with background music, for the first time by a major company.

It has given the Royal Shakespeare Company a huge hit. Despite chilly reviews, not a ticket is to be had between now and the end of its run in mid-March--an ironic circumstance, given the RSC’s serious financial predicament (see accompanying box). Its success at the Barbican would seem to stem from its appeal to young people who rarely attend the theater. From out of the woodwork, “A Clockwork Orange” has brought to the Barbican audiences far too young to remember the controversy over the work, but apparently familiar with Burgess’ book and Kubrick’s movie--even though the film has not been available on video in England and received only a limited film distribution originally.

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Then again, part of the production’s popularity may arise from director Ron Daniels’ decision to commission music for “A Clockwork Orange 2004" from two of the world’s best-known rock musicians, Edge and Bono from U2.

Word is also out about the performance of RSC actor Phil Daniels (no relation to the director). In the leading role of the intelligent young thug Alex, Daniels (who appeared in the rock-drama movie “Quadrophenia”) is eliciting the sort of audience response one might expect from a pop star, with some teen-age girls’ screams clearly audible among thundering applause. Not since David Warner played Hamlet in the mid-1960s has the Royal Shakespeare Company seen this kind of adolescent enthusiasm.

Burgess himself had originally devised a theatrical version of “A Clockwork Orange” about five years ago, with lyrics and suggestions about accompanying music. As Ron Daniels tells it, Burgess “was tired of bad versions being put together by pub theaters and rock groups.”

But Daniels found Burgess’s own stage version “rather bare--it doesn’t reflect all the comic richness and ironies of the original.”

So Daniels, working from the novel, devised the theatrical text. (The credits for the production read: “Anthony Burgess in collaboration with Ron Daniels,” which, says Daniels, is fine with him.)

The production remains true to the spirit of Burgess’ novel. It tells the story of Alex, a bright, articulate 15-year-old who loves the music of Beethoven. But Alex and his three droogs also get high on drug-spiked milk. In his favorite night spot, the Korova Milk Bar, they indulge in sprees of mugging and rape. The old ultra-violence, as Alex calls it.

Eventually jailed for the brutal murder of a helpless old woman, Alex is chosen as a guinea pig by a repressive government intent on imposing law and order. He undergoes aversion therapy, and is shown horrific sequences of filmed violence while being induced to vomit. This works--but he also develops an aversion to the music of Beethoven, which accompanies the violent images on film.

So when Alex is sent back into the world, “cured” and nonviolent, will he be at the mercy of vengeful beatings from those he wronged?

Many characters in the play argue that he is not at risk--he has been brainwashed, and is only “good” because he is deprived of making a free moral choice. In the final scenes--based on the last chapter of Burgess’ book that was cut from its American edition, and not dealt with in Kubrick’s movie--Alex muses on growing up, out of his flirtation with ultra-violence. He even ponders the pleasures of having a son.

But why revive “A Clockwork Orange” now? Ron Daniels describes it as “an amazingly prophetic novel. It’s the kind of work from which good company pieces are made. It’s a good story full of moral inquiry, which I think is the stuff of the RSC.”

He had also seen Kubrick’s movie, and thought it “an extremely exciting piece of cinema, but a cultural monument rooted in the ‘60s. For me, the task was setting up a production that was much more contemporary.”

With this is mind, he approached Edge and Bono--who, as it turned out, were themselves concentrating on the problem of teen crime, having recently viewed the toughest gang turfs in Los Angeles from the back of a police car. They saw what Edge calls “an ultra-violent underclass.”

The members of U2 have never sought to hide their Christian beliefs, and the lyrics of their songs are themselves shot through with a sense of moral inquiry. “After seeing the first rehearsal,” says Edge, “we felt that ‘A Clockwork Orange’ had never been so relevant, and that it was worth using our music to try and put the story into this context.”

But the music that he and Bono submitted hardly approximates chart-bound material--nor does it remotely recall anything one might expect to find in a conventional stage musical. The instrument music is rhythmic and abstract, with Edge playing expressive guitar to produce an unsettling effect. Combined with the lightning of the production--which sometimes bathes the stage in blood-red shadows--the music and spoken dialogue evoke an aggressive, violent environment.

But this time around, despite the success of the production, no one is complaining about the way in which violence is depicted. Says Ron Daniels: “We have staged the violent scenes accurately, but we have tried to make them not only violent but slightly tawdry and mundane. It’s comparable to what’s actually happening in the streets today. And I think people who come here expecting to be either gratified or outraged by the violence will be surprised by that.”

Burgess, who now lives in tax exile in Monaco, has complained over the years that while he is the author of 50 books, many people thought “A Clockwork Orange” was the only one he had ever written. Even before Kubrick made his move, pop groups had been interested in adapting the novel. For a time, the Rolling Stones had an option on it, and Mick Jagger was reportedly keen to play Alex.

Despite his attempt at a theatrical version of the work, Burgess now admits (in the play’s program notes) that “the final textual authority . . . rests with this present Royal Shakespeare Company production.” He has not made himself available for interviews.

He has not made himself available After Edge submitted his musical contributions, it transpired that Burgess was so oblivious to contemporary rock music that for a while he was under the impression the score had been written by someone called Ed.

It was Burgess who suggested putting the date 2004 after the title of the current production. “He sort of rushed into print with it,” says Ron Daniels, who sees no need for it: “I think one of the joys of the novel is that it’s timeless and placeless. It could be New York, London, Moscow now, 50 years hence or whenever.”

Still, he insists it has a contemporary relevance. “I think the story applies even more so today, certainly in the sense of urban decay you get from our inner cities.

“The novel and the film came out before our TV screens became saturated with images of violence. Now we’ve seen Vietnam on TV, we’ve seen Tien An Men Square and we don’t perceive violence in the same way. We’ve partaken of the violence in that sense; our homes are no longer sanctuaries.”

In 1971, Kubrick opted for a stylized, chilling, almost balletic approach in depicting the razor-slashing, almost thuggery of Alex and his Droogs. One of the movie’s notorious scenes showed them on a violent spree, accompanied by the uplifting strains of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Within weeks of the film’s release in Britain, press accounts appeared of youth gangs on the prowl dressed like Alex’s droogs--in bowler hats, carrying umbrellas and sporting long false eyelashes on one eye. Every outbreak of juvenile delinquency in public parks or soccer stadiums was inevitably dubbed a “Clockwork Orange-style incident.”

Unquestionably, the media in Britain made the most of the shock value generated by the film. Equally unquestionably, some of the film’s younger audiences were entranced by the ultra-violence is portrayed.

The controversy simply refused to die down, and Kubrick, who lives in England, ceased to make any further comment about the film. Eventually, Kubrick’s family and relatives started to receive death threats--so the director had the film withdrawn from British movie theaters. For years, it could not be seen in cinemas or on home video in Britain.

The result? “A Clockwork Orange 2004" has arrived with a tremendous amount of mystique and interest attached to it. The brisk business it has been doing owes nothing to London’s theater critics who have at best praised the production tentatively, and at worst savaged it.

“For all the hints of relevance, I am not sure of the point,” wrote Martin Hoyle in the Financial Times. The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Osborne found “a dialogue which runs the game from the plodding to the affluent,” while Michael Billington of the Guardian, though admiring Phil Daniels as Alex and “the undeniable zip and flair” of the staging, thought the story “only fully works as a novel.”

The critics on Britain’s Sunday newspapers were, if anything, even harsher. The Observer’s Michael Coveney, condemning it as “trite and meretricious,” added: “It results merely from a desire to make money but betrays not so much the company’s financial desperation as its spiritual bankruptcy.” “A jolly thin time we have of it for nearly three hours,” echoed John Peter of the Sunday Times.

None of these considerations seemed to bother the young audience who watched a recent midweek matinee performance. Many stood to applaud Phil Daniels when it came time for curtain call, and they chattered animatedly about the show as they spilled out into the Barbican subway station afterwards.

Most of the audience were of student age, and were orderly, middle-class and, judging by their mode of dress, faintly radical. Ultra-violence, for this crowd, was primarily an abstract idea.

“Phil Daniels was just brilliant,” said Mike Smythe, an English literature student from South London. “I thought he brought Alex to life as well as anyone.” Smythe unbuttoned his overcoat to reveal a Clockwork Orange T-shirt from the film. “An American mate of mine recorded the movie on video for me,” he explained.

On the tube train, one young man was completely decked out in Clockwork Orange garb--bowler hat, tight black suit with pants cut short above the ankle, and white socks. “Just call me Alex,” he said with a cultured accent and a wicked grin. And had he liked the production? He lapsed into nadsat. “Real horrorshow,” he said.


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