Marking the 50th anniversary of Anthony Burgess’ infamous novel, Volcano Theatre have tackled the problem of its overfamiliarity head on, splintering the characters and narrative to give us a good look at the gears and springs that have kept it ticking for so long.
Kubrick’s film and Burgess’ own self-defeating stage adaptation have been discarded; this is a tussle with the book itself. Five performers tear through the novel in less than 90 minutes, throwing dance, video projections, spoken word and any other theatrical tool they can lay their hands on into the mix. There’s no doubting the company’s dedication and imagination, but what is left over is a rather toothless beast, a hodge podge of so-so ideas straining to hold together and keep an audience’s attention.
Volcano put the novel, rather than Alex, at the centre of things: Burgess’ charismatic serial-rapist is shared out among the company, the anti-hero is all of them and perhaps implicitly all of us. Characters dissolve as quickly as they appear, scenes and settings tumble over one another and at times the production feels more like a discussion than a performance. A Clockwork Orange may be a novel of ideas rather than living characters, but it is also visceral and efficient; here its concepts are underdeveloped and the myriad approaches Volcano try out fail to shock or surprise. Umbrellas are torn to shreds, Barbie dolls are cut into pieces and pages are ripped from books but nothing hurts and blow after blow falls without so much as leaving a mark.
The performances are generally excellent, and the company display a level of commitment to their material which impresses throughout. Mairi Phillips makes a particularly unnerving Alex when the role passes to her, and when the material occasionally comes together it is handled with energy and precision by the impressive cast. Director Paul Davies needs to trim down the quantity of ideas and set-pieces to give his performers the opportunity to shine, from the baffling pre-set to the final bow there is a frenetic busyness about everything that leaves actions feeling strangely purposeless. There are moments, such as the fleeting reference to the 2011 London riots and a brilliant deconstruction of Alex’s relationship with his parents, when Volcano find the sharp edge of an idea and begin to ram it home, but there is too little specificity and confidence in their ideas, too much larking about.
Gundy Sigurdar’s design reflects the direction, with the television screens, microphone stands and scattered props which have become the hall-mark of this now familiar noveau-Brechtian approach. In a production like Joe Hill-Gibbins’ recent Changeling revival the approach can be startlingly effective, exploding against the text like a firework stuffed with razor blades. Here – laboured and risk-free – it’s something of a damp squib.