Anthony Burgess, one of the several pen names of John Anthony Burgess Wilson, hated that his fame came from A Clockwork Orange.
He believed the novel was second-rate. He was infuriated when it became his headline work – even if it eventually paid for his numerous houses and international lifestyle. Compared with his comic creation Enderby, or Earthly Powers, the sprawling fictional memoir of Kenneth Toomey which summed up the 20th century, he thought the book propelled along by Alex DeLarge’s violent band of droogs was weak.
The culpa was Stanley Kubrick’s. His 1971 film version changed the ending and meddled with the violence. Yet even in its edited form, following copycat violence and death threats, Kubrick took the unusual step of banning his own movie in the UK. A Clockwork Orange was not shown on terrestrial TV until 2002.
A key scene in the book is where Alex – failed by society, failed by his parents, failed by everyone – picks up two ten-year-old girls from a record store and violently punishes them.
Kubrick made the scene sexy and humorous. Alex slides in between two older girls flicking through records in a shop and tempts them back to his home for a Benny Hill-esque ménage à trois.
While it was too much for Burgess, artistic director of Action To The Word theatre company Alexandra Spencer-Jones says Kubrick took Burgess’s creation and made something new.
“Kubrick put his own artistic slant on it,” she explains.
“He rejects the book but there are other things he embraces. He really was able to create a world in which the story can exist. He reinvented it.”
As a 14-year-old at school, Spencer-Jones was warned by her teacher to avoid telling her parents the reading list featured A Clockwork Orange. She says in those days, at the public school she went to, the tutors could take a few risks.
Being told by the responsible adult, “Whatever you do, do not tell your parents we are reading this novel,” was all the motivation she needed to read the novel cover to cover.
“Because we weren’t privy to things like that, which are so available now – and that book was so taboo – it made it feel like it was the most dangerous thing we had ever read.
“He gave it to us shrouded in mythology, and as long as you can conquer the first barrier of the language, which you can conquer regardless of background and education, there is nothing better in fiction.
“I really am in love with that book. I read it all through my adolescence. It is so good, it changes every time.”
The reason Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange is so dangerous for schoolchildren is one soon starts to see the world through dandyish Alex’s lens. He is the charismatic youth with a twisted sense of humour, a hilarious worldview, a love of Beethoven, a short fuse. He is also timeless. His worries can be understood by youth in any epoch.
The language Burgess invented, Nadsat – a Russian-infused English, tinged with Cockney rhyming slang, German and Biblical words – was written to avoid being dated.
“What else is interesting in the book is how right Alex thinks he is to do what he does. He actually reacts against the system carefully and symbolically. It’s a morality tale and he feels justified to do what he does.
“He draws the reader sitting on the sofa in, so you start looking at the world through his eyes.”
For that reason, Spencer-Jones built her theatre adaptation from Burgess’s text rather than the film.
The fact it is 50 years since the book was first published is a happy coincidence – her all-male version first premiered three years ago.
After a sell-out run in Edinburgh this year, five stars from What’s On Stage and Three Weeks, the co-production with Glynis Henderson Productions is beginning a national tour in Hove, where Burgess worked on the book.
“There are no bowler hats – that’s all Kubrick,” she adds, about the sharp style the filmmaker created.
“Actually, in the book there is no clear indication of how the boys should look.
“The important thing is the droogs are at the height of fashion, however teen fashion has moved on, and that reflects how we dress them.”
The ultra-violence dished out by the four-strong group of self-declared vigilantes to fight the tedium of adolescence will not be avoided. The original ending, which brings tragedy for Alex as he is backed into submission by Dr Brodsky and the ministry, is honoured.
With an all-male cast, however, Spencer-Jones has shifted the dynamic.
“All the way through the book it’s male behaviour, male psychology, with women treated as idiots, as sheep, as sex objects.
“I wanted to explore a version without women being ruined. I wanted to watch it where it became a story about men and how they related each other.”
Thus, she’s always asked if this is the gay version.
“It’s a strange question. The book is not straight or gay, so I don’t understand the question. Is it because people anticipate the rape that takes place to be on another man?
“We are not trying to create a homosexual story. It’s about power and control – a guy who’s in control of the droogs, who wouldn’t want to curb his natural instincts and allows the audience to follow that dangerous journey.”
- The Old Market, Upper Market Street, Hove, Thursday, September 20, to Saturday, September 22. Starts 8pm, Friday matinee at 2pm. Tickets £10 to £15. For more information, call 01273 201801.