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How director Alexandra Spencer-Jones' love of Shakespeare led to A Clockwork Orange
"If you walk away in love with a raping murderer, well, I've done my job," jokes Alexandra Spencer-Jones, the British adapter-director of the all-male stage incarnation of Anthony Burgess' 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, currently playing at New World Stages. Or maybe she's not kidding. In Stanley Kubrick's iconic 1971 film adaptation, teenage gang leader Alex DeLarge as played by Malcolm McDowell came off as the ultimate bad boy sex symbol in his bowler hat and false eyelashes. He was repellent, yes, but also seductive. Now, as portrayed by the shockingly fit and undeniably charming Jonno Davies, Alex still can't be dismissed as just evil. In fact, the real villains are those trying to find a quick fix for his sociopathic tendencies.
Spencer-Jones offers a visceral take on the book's heady themes, streamlining the narrative to 90 intense, music-packed minutes punctuated by meticulously choreographed sequences of stylized ultraviolence that are, like Alex, both repulsive and alluring. They thrust you into Alex's reality and you can't look away. "That's what Burgess really does beautifully in the novel: He draws you into his antihero," says Spencer-Jones. "My big priority was making sure that the audience was seeing the world through Alex's eyes. He is uniquely able to twist the world into a polymorphous perversion of his own perception. Alex is a warped everyman; he's not a villain. It's a dangerous line but it's our job to go down that route."
A devoted fan of Burgess' book since her teenage years, Spencer-Jones first got the idea to stage it while working on a 2009 production of Romeo and Juliet with her London-based theatre company Action to the Word. As Romeo, actor Martin McCreadie was playing "a good-boy-gone-bad" and she wondered what his "bad-boy-turned-good" would look like. As the troupe's name (a quote from Hamlet) implies, Action to the Word specializes in kinetic mountings of classics, especially the Bard. So Spencer-Jones infused her take on A Clockwork Orange with some Shakespearean sensibilities.
"My degree at university was concentrating on original practice Shakespeare, and I was really interested in the all-boy company idea, with younger members playing the women and character actors that would swap out roles," she says. McCreadie originated the part of Alex, performing the role at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, London's Soho Theatre, and in Australia. Davies took over in 2014 as the show went to Norway, Singapore, back to London, and now New York City. As Alex, he's the only cast member to play one role; the other eight actors morph into multiple characters, some male, others female, at lightning speed without the benefit of costume changes.
Another Shakespearean element? Alex and his Droogs' use of Nadsat, a Russian-influenced slang Burgess invented for the novel, which sounds poetic yet also obscure -- kind of like listening to the Bard.
One aspect of the show that is decidedly modern, however, is the striking physique of the cast. Much has been written about their bodies, which are definitely impressive. But Spencer-Jones is surprised when the show is characterized as some kind of beefcake attraction. "We don't select a load of lads based on their bodies," she says. "Of course your stamina has to be fantastic. It's all physical and wild." But as she quickly points out: "The one moment when the company's topless, they're about to rape a teenager in the shower! You're telling me that's a turn-on?"
Yet it's that kind of loaded reaction -- it's hot! No, wait, it's horrifying! -- that gets to the heart of what the production does. You can't hate Alex even if you despise his actions. "Whenever I finish the book, I'm always devastated," says Spencer-Jones, who rereads the novel frequently. "Alex has taught me a different way of thinking about the world. That's what I think the play does, too, it draws you into him. It's balletic, it's sexual, it's heightened, and it's addictive."
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Top image: Jonno Davies and the cast of A Clockwork Orange. Photos by Caitlin McNaney.