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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.

February 18, 1990|DAVID GRITTEN

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."

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