British author Anthony Burgess wrote his ultraviolent dystopian novella A Clockwork Orange in just a few weeks. Published in Britain in 1962, in the midst of a national hysteria over youth delinquency, A Clockwork Orange has since been hailed as one of the best English-language books of the 20th century. In 1971, Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation became a critically acclaimed hit — and racked up piles of criticism for its onscreen glorification of violence and rape. The film's biggest critic? Burgess himself.
"Anthony Burgess detested the film, and thought that much of what happened there was a glorification of sex and violence that took away from the central message in play, which is choice," notes Andrew Smith, a professor of theater at Middlebury College. "He wrote a stage adaptation very much in response to the film version."
Smith directs an ambitious production of that 1987 stage play — featuring an entirely new, redemptive ending for the story's antihero that's not present in the novella or the film — this weekend at Middlebury College's Wright Theatre. "I believe the role of theater is something that promotes discussion, or even instigates discussion or conversation," Smith says. "Some theater pieces suggest conversations, and other pieces poke and prod. [A Clockwork Orange] is poke and prod territory."
The story is familiar to most audiences: In the not-too-distant future, a teenager named Alex and his adolescent gang, called "droogs," terrorize the residents of a big city under totalitarian control. Each night they brutalize, rape and burglarize for pleasure. Eventually betrayed by his gang, Alex is captured by the police and forced into aversion therapy. He's tortured and "cured" of evil impulses, feeling nausea each time he feels a sadistic impulse and, in a twist of totalitarian torment, whenever he hears music that used to bring him joy — Beethoven's Symphony no. 9, in particular. Burgess' central question was meant to be about choice: Is it better to choose to be evil, or to be forced to be good?
A Clockwork Orange is, by Burgess' own admission, a crude story, and not particularly challenging to unpack. (In an introduction to the 1986 American edition, the author called it "too didactic to be artistic.") But "crude" is the last word one would use to describe Smith's production; this is a highly stylized, assiduously choreographed, three-hour "dance" of a play. Smith's formidable company of 28 Middlebury College students repeatedly takes to the stage en masse, creating riotous sequences ranging from violent tableaux to rowdy mobs to hurried urban streetscapes.
Designer Mark Evancho's remarkable moving set — made of four two-story metal platforms on wheels, with removable metal staircases — not only accommodates the action but also inspires it. The actors hang, dangle, leap and toss metal pipes and trash cans from all directions with casual aplomb. Stark side lighting adds an eerie ambiance, and the musical cues hit the right ominous and awe-inspiring notes. (By the end, you'll have heard Beethoven's Ninth so many times, you'll want to puke, too.) The young performers handle more than 15 physical combat scenes, choreographed by Burlington actor Paul Ugalde, with agility.
"The play has a very high sense of style in addition to a central core message," Smith says. "And I like it when the audience gets a sense of that, and gets to decide what matters more to them."
The danger of a highly stylized performance of a violent story is, of course, that it might glorify said violence. Smith notes that immediately after the first rehearsal, his students encountered criticism and questions from fellow students in the dorm rooms and dining halls of the college, which has had its share of conversations about sexual violence in recent years.
"It was a very big part of our launching place of understanding our role within this, and much of our attention went to gender issues," says Smith. "We were dealing with the clatter that comes from working with a title like A Clockwork Orange."
This incarnation of the story has little in common with Kubrick's film, which features, among other things, a succession of male-on-female rapes. Though the company addressed sexual violence, it also took pains to neutralize the role of gender. Violence is perpetrated against men and women equally; in a highly unusual move, a female actor plays Georgie, one of Alex's "droogs."
The character of Alex, who may well be modern literature's best-loved sadist, is also treated with sensitivity. "An actor can't play an archetype," Smith notes. "An actor has to play a human being, so that was very important to me to work with [senior Adam Milano] to figure out." In the final scene, Milano is given room to bring his character to a tentative redemption.
The show's extremely stylized choreography, too, is designed not to glorify but to protect both actors and audience. "I think people will understand the violence that's happening, but they'll also see the performer is absolutely safe," Smith says. "And there's almost a beauty to the violence in the choreography, which will also, hopefully, be very off-putting. Hopefully people will see it and think, Wow, that was beautifully horrible, or horribly beautiful. That's kind of the [stage] world we want to live in."