“You could very easily do a version based in Liverpool with a bunch of lads in North Face jackets”: Nick Bagnall On A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange at the Everyman, Liverpool; photographs by Brian Roberts

Beautiful violence and poetic lewdness: Everyman Director Nick Bagnall talks to Joseph Viney about letting Anthony Burgess’ Droogs out to play…

What’s it going be then, eh? A brand new stage adaptation of A Clockwork Orange for Liverpool’s Everyman theatre. Right horrorshow, and on the same street the Korova used to ply its trade. How fitting.

Hated, loved, misinterpreted, feared, regarded with confusion, a cult classic; the tale of Alex and his Droogs causing the most reckless ultraviolence and a bit of the old in-out-in-out can be firmly put into these categories with a kick from a hobnail boot and a Gene Kelly tune in its heart.

Now, this fearless adaptation, opening last Saturday and directed by Nick Bagnall (The Electric Hills, The Conquest Of The South Pole, A Midsummer Night’s Dream amongst many, many others) will be hoping to do justice to a tale that endures because of its frightening link with our own reality.

“Burgess was sick of people writing and staging second-rate adaptations of the text”

Bagnall’s A Clockwork Orange (“That’s a fair gloopy title. Who ever heard of a Clockwork Orange?”) differs from the various other forms of media that have tried to capture the energy, malice and sheer unbridled energy that crackles and pops through the narrative. This time, Bagnall has reached deep into authenticity, his adaptation being based on Anthony Burgess’ own screenplay of his novella.

“Burgess was sick of people writing and staging second-rate adaptations of the text,” explains Bagnall. “And so, in 1984, he wrote his own version. Until now, it has never been performed before on stage.

“In 1990, I went to London to see Phil Daniels play Alex in a stage version at the RSC, where Bono and The Edge did the music, which was fucking abysmal. It was all rock music, it was just horrendous. So when we were thinking about what we were going to do this season, in the back of my head I’d always wanted to stage A Clockwork Orange but I’d never worked out how to achieve it.

“I didn’t realise that Burgess had written a stage play of his book and when it came to us staging A Clockwork Orange, we wanted to do it properly, and so I corresponded with the Burgess Foundation in Manchester, and we worked on getting hold of Burgess’ screenplay.”

The innovation and reach for stirring, inspiring ideas doesn’t stop there. The score for each performance will be performed live on the night by local musician Pete The Percussionist; a multi-instrumentalist who will be adding some zip to each night’s proceedings.

A Clockwork Orange at the Everyman, Liverpool; photographs by Brian Roberts

Bagnall is confident that staging Burgess’ vision of dystopian malaise will set the cat among the pigeons in Liverpool’s stage scene. If anything, Bagnall sees it as an opportunity to open the doors to a brand new set of eyes – and box office receipts – to the prestigious Hope Street venue.

“There’s a real buzz about [A Clockwork Orange] because we feel it may bring in a different audience”, he says. “We are hoping to bring in a younger crowd too. Hopefully a movie crowd, given that there’s a cult following with the cinematic release. It’s kinda terrifying, seeing these grown adults dressed as Droogs coming to see these things.”

If grinning Droogs – most probably spiked with self-administered drencrom stirred into a glass of milk – sat in the audience are a cause for trepidation, that will be nothing compared to what’s on stage.

A Clockwork Orange’s ace in the hole is Nadsat; the fictional argot that blends Russian, nonsense talk, English and the notion of words being developed on the fly, taking in surroundings and adapting the language to fit. Burgess’ argot is tricky enough to read, never mind have hurtled at them by an ensemble of actors at a breakneck pace amidst throttling, violent action.

Potential difficulties aside, it’s not A Clockwork Orange without it; something Bagnall knows only too well.

“What’s brilliant about it is that you don’t have to apologise for it”

“It’s in there,” he tells me, enthusiastically. “What’s brilliant about it is that you don’t have to apologise for it, or explain it. It’s magical in the sense that people don’t really know what’s being said, but you get the sense of it immediately. It’s like a piece of music. It’s important to remember that Burgess had always wanted to be a composer as opposed to a writer, so it’s got that musicality about it, the language.”

One of the main narrative pillars in A Clockwork Orange is the disconnect Alex and the Droogs put between themselves and the rest of the world.

Alex, for all of his faults (like murder and rape, and beating up old homeless people… You know, those kind of faults), is maligned by those in authority. Mr Deltoid treats Alex like a dog on a lead with implied sexual nastiness, or at least the hint of something untoward.

The prison and its jailers, the clergy, those that make Alex undergo the Ludovico technique; in their rush to condemn Alex, change him, make him ‘better’ by conforming to their textbook standards and untested experiments on criminals.

It highlights how two worlds within the play exist within the same space. If Alex and his cohorts aren’t fringe enough, their quasi-impenetrable language should just about do it. Appy-polly loggies if it’s gonna go over your head. Anyhow, as it happens, language is Bagnall’s forte.

A Clockwork Orange at the Everyman, Liverpool; photographs by Brian Roberts

“I’m always drawn to plays where there’s an elevation of language”, he continues. “Most of my stuff tends to be about the forgotten, the dispossessed, [and] how they elevate themselves through use of language.”

A Clockwork Orange is unique in as much as its themes and ideas are so powerful, so resonant, that ultimately it could be linked to any Post-War era of Britiain. Social decline, governments and authorities dangerous and out of control, mass media projections of violence and sex (or, The Modern Day Ludovico Technique) and the sense that we as a race are stumbling happily toward our doom.

While A Clockwork Orange has endured for these reasons, it can be too easy to tie the themes into A Mordern Setting (yawn) and make things too on the nose.

For example, a lesser light than Bagnall and his players may look at Nadsat and correspond it with the current Russia-vibe the world is experiencing of late. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but it’s one that Bagnall and company have tried to navigate.

“Ultimately, the themes are so deeply embedded and strong that they exist within their own space”, says Bagnall. “You can certainly apply the themes, lessons and morality to modern day mores, but you risk destroying the resonance of the original. It will lose its magic.

“You could very easily do a version based in Liverpool with a bunch of lads in North Face jackets, but what the play most definitely does is make the story and world an island unto itself”

“What Burgess very clearly does, in the first stage direction, is state that it is set in ‘the unforeseeable future’. Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in the 1960s, at a time when groups of young men, post-war, had no place to put their aggression in a functional manner, and so it led to destruction and the instigation of it.

“You could very easily do a version based in Liverpool with a bunch of lads in North Face jackets, and that’s probably a valid version, but what the play most definitely does is make the story and world an island unto itself. If you localise it, you draw away some of its power, and I think that’s what Burgess wanted.”

Being an island to itself, in the case of A Clockwork Orange, also means that special care has to be taken to not saturate the audience with the horror and terror of Alex and the Droogs’ actions. Kubrick’s cinematic version faced opprobrium and censorship (the film was finally pulled from cinemas in 1973 at Kubrick’s request, such was the controversy it created) and a mere mention of the title will make people think of stark violence, rape and the nastiness dwelling at the sump of the heart of humanity.

So how do Bagnall and his charges express the reality of Burgess’ vision, while not making people sick to their stomachs? It’s a line thinner than an anorexic tapeworm, and perhaps the biggest challenge in getting the play staged. The violence has to be there, it must, but even in its presentation is the loaded question of whether those involved are condoning or condemning the actions of Alex and his pals.

“It’s a really fine line, and I don’t know the answer to it to be honest,” confesses Bagnall. “A lot of my work concerns itself with looking at how far you can push those parameters. I certainly believe that theatre should be challenging us, and questioning, and all of those things we want it to be able to do, or that we’re allowed to do through art.

A Clockwork Orange at the Everyman, Liverpool; photographs by Brian Roberts

“Both Burgess and Kubrick faced similar accusations on falling on justification side of the line in their versions. My job, as lead creative, is to be guided by what Burgess is saying on the page, and however I push that theatrically… Listen, we can get fucking slammed doing A Clockwork Orange just as the purists will slam you for putting rock and roll in Shakespeare. Or Bono and The Edge.”

There may be those who “slam” for sure, and with living in more sensitive times the chances of it are higher than ever. Has catering to audience members looking to get in a huff played on Bagnall’s mind?

“Yeah, I don’t care. I really don’t care, because I think what is really going to be tricky about this is, there’s beauty in this violence… I’m looking at Alex as Lord Byron instead of some beer-bottle thug.

“The play is about asking the audience to view acts of violence, lewdness as poetry, being urged to see if they can separate, or indeed determine, any beauty within it. So they have to know and understand that their sensibilities, their own acceptable sense of normality, is going to be challenged.”

With normality always facing the checks and balances of Burgess’ world and ideas, what message is there that Bagnall sees fit to grab, highlight and show to the world?

“There’s so many things. The play questions good and evil, being brainwashed, what IS good, what IS evil, whether you’re born with it or make it, where this energy comes from to want to destroy. What I do know it deals with is free will. And there is redemption too, as it was in the novella, and I think we need that redemption.

“If I was an audience member, and I could leave the theatre with some sense of hope for the boy, then I’d be happy.”

Joseph Viney

See A Clockwork Orange 2pm/5.30pm/7.30pm at the Everyman theatre, Liverpool, until Thursday 12 July 2018 – £32–£10

Part of The Everyman Company season

Images: cast in rehearsal with Bagnall (last image); photographs by Brian Roberts

Posted on 15/04/2018 by thedoublenegative