A Conversation with the Director of A Clockwork Orange

A Conversation with the Director of A Clockwork Orange


Director: Alexandra Spencer-Jones


To mark the 50th anniversary of Anthony Burgess’ literary cult masterpiece, A Clockwork Orange will tour Australia in a high octane, muscular and arresting production. This award-winning all-male cast, led by actor Martin McCreadie (as Alex) is breath-taking in its treatment of the ultraviolent and highly sexual text and makes for testosterone-filled, electrifying and astonishing theatre. 


A Clockwork Orange lures its audience into the glorious glass-edged nastiness of Manchester’s underworld.  An unapologetic celebration of the human condition, this is the story of little Alex and his Droogs in their battle against the tedium of adolescence. Supressed violence and sexual desire mix in a dangerous and damaging cocktail as the young men battle through the difficulties of youth. 


A deeply hedonist piece, A Clockwork Orange explores sexuality, masculinity and aggression through contemporary music, exquisitely executed movement and the notoriety of Burgess’ text. It features a soundtrack of Gossip, David Bowie, The Scissor Sisters, Placebo and of course Beethoven.



In the 50th anniversary of Anthony Burgess’ book’s release, why was it the right time to bring back A Clockwork Orange? What drew you to this work rather than any other?

A Clockwork Orange is one of those magic things that will never age. It’s written in such a way whereby the author and protagonist ask questions rather than answer them – it is up to the reader to fill in the gaps. What that means is that concepts like Burgess’ ‘Heighth of fashion’ mean the height of fashion at the time of reading. In that way the novel is entirely timeless. There will always be teenage slang, there will always be disaffected youth, there will always be ultraviolence.


What was your original response to Kubrick’s 1971 cult film?

I saw the film for the first time when I was studying at Cambridge. My Dad had often referenced it through my childhood due to my sharing the protagonist’s name – Alex and when I was finally ‘allowed’ to watch the film I responded with adoration. It’s decadent and sexy, aggressive but watchable – taboo but balletic, just amazing. To me, unlike the novel and our play, it is rooted in the seventies though and is one of the only films of Kubrick’s (a total master) to date. Malcolm McDowell is an amazing actor. It spun me off in all directions – Beethoven, Electronica, Kubrick, Caligula…tough to walk in the footsteps of a giant like Kubrick.


This production is a theatrical adaptation of the novel. Should we have read the novel before seeing the show?

I don’t think it’s important to have read the novel to enjoy the show. It’s interesting actually, we’ve introduced many young people to the show who missed the release of the book and film in their adolescence. In fact, audience have even told us that our production is the first time they have actually understood the story.


A Clockwork Orange

Will the ending of the play surprise fans of the film?

Probably in the same way that the film’s ending surprised fans of the book. The Hollywood ending of the film (where Alex remains a bad-boy) really topples the morality tale aspect of the novel and it is so easy to see why Burgess became frustrated with the roaring success of the film when the message he created was entirely lost in the glamorisation of violence in the film’s conclusion. How much more disconcerting is it if Alex can shrug off rape and murder as ‘Just part of growing up’ ? – scary!


What makes Alex so bad? Is there a popular celebrity bad boy, or a character from a film that represents the modern day Alex? Who are our contemporary/current droogs?

Alex is bad because he is intelligent, incredibly logical and mostly entirely truthful. He sees the world through crystal clear blue eyes for all it’s evil and gratuity and find logical justice in his actions. For me his real badness comes in his causality, attractiveness and pure unadulterated fun. You don’t get boys as bad as him any more and everybody loves a bad-boy. We were looking at the Mack The Knifes, Patrick Batemans, Pinkys of the world when we were building the role.


Modern day bad boys don’t stand a chance – Chris Brown? Please…spare me, where’s the elegance?


‘Is it better to be forced to be good or better to choose to be bad?’”

Freedom triumphs every time – better to choose to be bad, then at least I have a chance of being good for real.


Can you tell us about Action to the Word? 

I created Action To The Word in 2008 with a handful of graduates I loved directing at The University of Cambridge. It very quickly became much more diverse with actors coming to the company from all kinds of backgrounds, training and disciplines. Performing in rep the company play mostly Shakespeare having had Titus Andronicus, Romeo & Juliet and The Merchant of Venice out there in the last couple of years. I also adapt and translate plays and am currently in the middle of creating a new adaptation of the The Oresteia Cycle routed in 1945-1966. With my co-writer and company Associate Patrick Gleeson we are also about to put up our new musical Constance & Sinestra and The Cabinet of Screams which opens in London the last week of July. Now an award-winning and international touring company, the company was created from nothing but the most talented actors imaginable coming together and giving everything they have to make our ambition our reality. There is loads about us at our website here www.actiontotheword.com


A Clockwork Orange

How did you find your cast? Did they need to be dancers? Why an all male cast?

The cast came to me from many directions. I had directed Martin McCreadie (the actor in the leading role of A Clockwork Orange) before as Romeo. I’ve since directed him as Mercutio in a different production of R&J and as Chiron in Titus Andronicus. Neil Chinneck, the actor that plays our Dr Brodsky, F Alexander and Mum in A Clockwork Orange has played Jason in Medea, Marcus in Titus Andronicus and Joe in The Oresteia cycle. James Meryk, who plays Georgie in Clockwork Orange will go on to play Hereford in Constance & Sinestra. I love knowing my actors and normally make decisions about what plays to do depending on the actors I enjoy working with.

I’ve got amazing women in the company – stunning actresses. Mainly with Shakespeare though you need three strong actresses per play  so I spend the majority of my time directing men. I also really wanted to play with ‘what it is to be a boy’ and who better to play with?


How does everybody go on tour? Who gets up early for a run? Who needs their coffee before a show? 

LOL! The boys tour beautifully with each other, so much so, they’re going on holiday with each other (and myself) at the end of the tour for a few extra days. They get on so well they’re like a little family, it’s lovely. A lot of them have been working together and living together on and off for three years.


A huge part of being in the company is being good to work with.


Do you have a pre-show/post-show ritual?

It was a bit different when I used to act – I was terribly serious. I’d need total peace and quiet backstage and didn’t like my colleagues playing around. I knew I was a director when I was thinking more about what they were doing rather than what I was doing. I grew up on film sets and in rehearsal rooms and so I’m at home when I’m in a theatre. No real rituals these days. Before the show the boys are very serious about their warm ups but they have good fun as well – work hard, play hard.


When do you stop “working” on a show?

That’s an excellent question. I don’t think you do as a director and choreographer. I must drive the boys mad (though they’re so professional they’d never show it), still noting them after years of work on characters that are so much part of them I’m preaching to the choir! Your taste continuously develops alongside theirs so you find yourself constantly noting and finding new things. As I also produced the show originally and artistically direct Action To The Word you’re constantly dealing with the press and with logistics as well. I have a stunning associate director on the project called Maddy Mutch. She’s not actually out in Australia with us but her work on the show, like mine, is continuous.


A Clockwork Orange

How did you approach the ultraviolence and highly sexual text? Did this text require a different approach than that which you would usually take?

I approached A Clockwork Orange in just the same way as I’d approach any text. I treat our Shakespearean verse as ‘real’ text – interruptions and overlaps abound. I tend to have directorial interest in high drama and taboo. Titus Andronicus is an absolute blood bath, my musical Constance and Sinestra concerns itself with death and taxidermy and Romeo & Juliet is about children dying in the name of love. All the conception of this piece came from looking at the world through Alex’s eyes as we do in the book. When a young man is gang-raped and murdered in a Salford alleyway, for example, we see what Alex sees – which is a 1980s pop video, the young man the feature and he the rock star. The physicality of the piece certainly divides people but for me being attracted to and loving watching Alex and his droog’s behaviour tricks you into decadently and perversely enjoying the violence just like they do.


Can you tell us about your creative process? Where does inspiration come from? What happens at the earliest production meetings? What happens in the rehearsal room?

It varies greatly from piece to piece. I read as much as possible all the time. I immerse myself in the genre of the piece I’m taking on, often visit the location and eat, sleep and breathe the world of the piece for up to a year before production even starts. When we first workshopped Clockwork a lot of the work was created in the room. I went in with strong ideas, some images in mind but my real trick is casting, for which I have a really good eye. If you cast creatives, not actors, you’re able to do anything in a rehearsal room. Making models and knowing where they all need to go before hand is equal parts the luxury and curse of huge musicals and operas, it’s less restricting in stark theatre where you can make a lot of your choices on the hoof.


Why did you opt for choreography and stylised movement rather than a realistic approach to the ultraviolence? 

This relates directly to my earlier comment about the reader or the audience filling in the gaps. What you can do to your own mind is immeasurably the worst you can do your own mind as your imagination is the most amazing thing in the world. My own personal fear of rape/experiences with rape may be very different to someone else in the audience’s relationship with rape so what it does is allow people to make their own nasties – that’s sort of irresistible in an audience, I think.


A Clockwork Orange “is a warning of an encroaching state and the dangers of having our independence robbed.” Do we need more theatre just like it?

The relevance of the piece is horrifying. Only this week look at what has happened in Woolwich, UK and the subsequent riot reaction. In 2011 the riots in London were petrifying.

The more the subject of youth rebellion can be explored the more people will learn.


A Clockwork Orange

What is theatre for? Why do we make it? Why do we see it?

Rather beautifully, Viola (Shakespeare in Love) says this, “I would stay asleep my whole life, if I could dream myself into a company of players” – that pretty much sums it up for me. In theatre we know who is coming on and off the stage and when they will, playing to give us entertainment and catharsis. In these cash-strapped times, credit-crunch defying, the London  Theatres are still filling up because people need release, escapism.  Theatre is the best thing in the entire world.


What’s next?

Action To The Word go into rehearsals for Constance & Sinestra one week after we return home from Australia, which plays from July. We’re also developing an exciting new physical production based on a really famous Gothic tragedy (that shall remain nameless for now), and later in the year we will be playing the concluding part of our Oresteia. I myself also have some great freelance work coming up that I’m really excited about including working on an opera.


Presented By Les Currie and GHP, Action to the Word’s Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange runs from 28th May – June 8th at QPAC



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