The violence is intentionally stylised – but remains brutalAlice Walker

On the face of it, A Clockwork Orange doesn’t sound like an exam term morale booster. Anthony Burgess’s novel is famously shocking, Stanley Kubrick’s film even more so. Alex, a violent juvenile delinquent in a twisted, dytopian society, is forced by the state to undergo an experimental rehabilitation technique which essentially amounts to brain-washing... In fact, however, what surprised Marthe de Ferrer (co-directing with Ruth O’Connell Brown) is how funny the play, which she grabbed on a whim in Heffers, has turned out to be.

“I’ve done a lot of serious plays,” she said, “so I was aiming to get a comedy. But in some ways, I suppose I did.” That the violence is easy to watch is, in fact, the point. O’Connell Brown explains: “It’s there to make the audience complicit. It’s far more interesting if they are half on Alex’s side whilst being repelled.”

“In the first scene there is this fight which is ridiculous and slapstick, intended to make the violence enjoyable to the audience. Then there’s a rape scene, which is still stylised, creating a distance and making sure the audience can’t instantly categorise the scene. Then suddenly the stylisation is broken down as the gang takes it even further, into pure brutality. We want to create a moment of discomfort as the audience realise they’ve been swept along.”

This is something that O’Connell Brown wants to recreate from her experience of reading the novel, famously written in the invented language of Nadsat (Russian for teen). “In the book this gives the reader a sense of dislocation from the action. You recognize the word for “punch” and get all excited... then you realize you just got excited about someone being beaten to death.

“The world of the play is like a horrible carnival mirror held up to society – recognisable but distorted.” That’s not to say it’s completely devoid of hope, as Aoife Kennan, the assistant director explains: "the end of the play is a transfer of energy for Alex. He finds love, and family – the basic unit of society. Though it is still morally ambiguous. He expects his son to do the same as he did.” Interestingly, Burgess himself didn’t see A Clockwork Orange as ambiguous. He described it as “too didactic to be a work of art”.

“I disagree,” says O’Connell Brown. “It’s as if he wants it to be didactic, then veers away at the last moment. All the way through, he seems to be saying that individual free will is the most important thing. Even if you use that freedom to destroy other people, the fact is that your own free choice is more valuable than doing a good deed. Then he adds in an ending where Alex doesn’t have to take responsibility for his actions. He washes his hands of the difficult questions he has raised.”

Free will, the role of the state, the difficulties of adolescence... This production aims to raise, but not solve, them all. “We want people in bar to be talking about what they’ve seen. We don’t want to provide a solution for the perfect society, but we do want the audience to be left thinking – what would happen to all of us if we lived in such a society? Would we have moral fibre to resist getting sucked into the culture of violence? Would we fight violence with violence? Would we bury heads in the sand like Alex’s family?”

Rehearsals have been running like... er... clockwork. “It’s just such a nice cast!” gushes de Ferrer, and the others swiftly agree. They’ve all become specialists in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, always a handy skill to have up your sleeve when watching University Challenge. The anarchic humour of the cast seems epitomized by a “bonding” game explained by Kennan: “The game is that you go round hugging each other whilst shouting ULTRAVIOLENCE. Ultraviolence is Nadsat for rape.”

But sensitive topics are being handled with care: Kate Reid will be playing a rape victim for the fourth time. Clockwork Orange, with its limited number of female characters and ubiquitous violence and rape seems an unexpected choice for three female directors. Gender blind casting meant one major change: the introduction of a female “droog” (member of Alex’s gang). “We weren’t sure at first whether she should play it as a man, or whether we should make the character female,” says de Ferrer. “In the end we decided on the latter. It takes away from the patriarchal nature of violence against women and means it’s pure violence for the sake of it – it doesn’t matter what gender the victim is, or the victimiser. Perhaps that makes it more horrible.”

Do they think gender blind casting should be used more widely? The team are equivocal. “We couldn’t decide whether we’d want a female Alex or not,” O’Connell Brown explains. “In the end, Mark [Milligan] was so good we didn’t have to.”