By Victoria Chen
A Clockwork Orange takes place in a repressive, totalitarian state where ordinary citizens have fallen into a passive stupor of complacency, blind to the seething discontent amongst its youths. Told from the perspective of Al, the show begins with him reminiscing about his reckless nights out and follows into his incarceration, during which he ends up being part of a mind-altering experiment set up by the government.
The audience enters the Esplanade Theatre Studio and encounters a fuchsia-coloured stage. Designed by Mohd Fared Jainal, it is a raised platform consisting of four catwalks that converge in the middle like a cross, with audiences seating in-between. There is vintage furniture placed on one end of the stage, and across, a structure with plastic bags of water hung from it, sort of like a time travel from the past to a rather flimsy future. On the third end, Al (Rizman Putra) sits on a wooden chair in a fashion that makes him seem like a king on his throne. He wears a cream fur coat over what seems like an undersized dress barely covering his chest, and his legs completely exposed. A large oval screen looking almost like an eye sits above him, and also directly across on the other end of the stage. This is where Eric Lee’s captivating multimedia design is projected throughout the show: close-up shots of bodies coming in contact with one another. Hotdogs thrown at faces. Ketchup splashed around. A montage of gore and violence. This world is messy, psychedelic, perhaps even psychotic.
A Clockwork Orange, originally written in English by Anthony Burgess, introduced a made-up language called Nadsat, described as “Russian-influenced English”. In this version directed by Noor Effendy Ibrahim, the text is adapted into Melayu by Zulfadli Rashid. Even some references are in Melayu. Whether this displaces the story or makes it more resonant is something that this non-Melayu-speaking writer cannot determine, even after discussing this with several audience members who understood the language. Despite surtitles, one cannot help but feel that despite deriving new insight and lyricism through a refreshing translation, some meaning has been lost as well. Regardless, one does not immediately relate to the characters. They speak mostly in shrills and yells, almost as if they are in constant cries for help, and their hysterical tones contrast with Al’s calm, settled voiceovers.
Their bodies move outlandishly; Al swaggers around with a cane and ankle brace, while his comrades (Shafiqhah Efandi, Izzul Irfan and Suhaili Safari) sashay, prowl and strut in wild abandonment. International or not, their exaggerated performativity, together with their skeletal masks, seem to alienate the audience, hence removing their empathy. The audience ends up being cold, uninvolved onlookers of the characters’ hedonistic display, even throughout moments of outrageous violence and cruelty. Is this a commentary on what society has become—overwhelmed by hyperbole and continuous misrepresentations of facts and reality, that people are now passive in the face of immorality and blatant cruelty?
However, this performance is not merely aggression and gore. There are small but effective comedic moments punctuating the otherwise intense dystopia, sometimes woven into the violence as well. In these situations, is one amused by how absurd the situation is, or horrified by how frivolously such crimes are committed? An attack is portrayed with smashing a plastic bag filled with water––similar to playing with water balloons in one’s childhood, except lethal. A prison uniform is a plastic coat. The engine of a police car is created with a wind-up toy car. One of the silliest (and yet ironically makes a hell lot of sense) moments is when a religious session turns into a KTV moment, garnering the loudest laughs and applause of the evening.
To be honest, it is rather difficult to dissect this production. It is neither riveting nor bland. Audiences are distanced but remain captivated. Language barrier aside, it seems that the success of this show rests not on its individual facets, but how they complement each other. Adrian Tan’s lighting is bombastic, flashing colours on the mostly cream and white costumes and props (A. Syadiq). The onstage action is discomforting, but cushioned by Safuan Johari’s sensitive sound design, thus producing an overall sinister universe that the audience may or may not be complicit in creating with their watchful eyes and passive bodies. Somehow, Teater Ekamatra’s A Clockwork Orange balances several dichotomies at once, and really makes one wonder, who goes to a show like that, and who is this show made for?
Photo credit: Monospectrum Photography