Martin McCreadie in A Clockwork Orange | York Theatre (Pic: Simon Kane)

Our screens were all hijacked by real horror show ultra-violence: creeches and flames in the nochy, red flowing krovvy and keeshkas all out, malchicks and devotchkas on moloko, crasting pretty polly, droogs waving britvas, waving pooshkas at the millicents then loveted, off to sodding staja to have their yarbles shived. Not two years since the arson, the looting, the violent clashes of London’s riots, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange ought to be as relevant as ever.

Ought. Ought but ain’t with this latest all-male incarnation from the UK’s Action to the Word. Disappointing, to say the least, because there are some elements of genuine brilliance in this production. However, confused as to whether it wanted to be a hyper-camp and over-stylised West Side Story or an underground contemporary anti-Hamlet, this production suffered from a lack of identity, and with it, the lack of something pretty indispensable to the story; that is, punch.

Alex (Martin McCreadie) and his droogs (mates) rule the streets of this near-future UK dystopia, doing drugs and indulging in rape and random acts of violence for kicks. Sentenced to prison for murder, Alex volunteers for the experimental Ludovico treatment which will “kill the criminal reflex” and therefore expedite his release. What he doesn’t anticipate is that the treatment will leave him crippled by nausea at the tones of his beloved classical music, culminating in his attempt at suicide while being forcibly subjected to what was once his greatest love, Beethoven’s Ninth.

McCreadie’s performance as Alex is reason enough to see this show. He is perfection. Cool, charming and frighteningly explosive, he leads from the crotch, seducing us into his depraved world and rendering violence glamourous. He toys, he titters, he growls the book’s purpose-built language, Nadsat, owning it, tossing it, milking its poeticism; commanding its authority like the greatest of Shakespearean performances.

Physically, he does the impossible, conveying the out-of-control through the greatest bodily control, convincing us beyond all doubt of the fight of his body and will against this foreign Ludovico force — never “acting” a push-pull dynamic, but internalising the simultaneity of clashing tensions. The man seems to have command of each muscle and each pulsing vein in isolation, like an elite acting athlete. And he is menacing. Yet he is vulnerable. Terrifying yet terrified. Despicable yet sexy. A man, but very much a boy. Never before have I seen such a matching of technical wizardry with emotional intensity. McCreadie is of a rare breed.

The ensemble, on the other hand, was mostly unremarkable, and not just because of the shadow cast by this acting goliath. Voices weren’t clear. Characters were thinly drawn and two-dimensional, often cheaply gimmicky and at times inappropriately parodied. Performances were never horrendous, but they were mostly just OK, with the odd triumph of one character (the mother, the lodger, the preacher in sermon) never carrying over to that actor’s next, nor characterising that actor’s show overall.

This was not helped by Alexandra Spencer-Jones’ direction. And I don’t mean the overall vision for the show (which, like root canal therapy, I’ll necessarily arrive at), but the internal logic, the tone being played in each scene. I repeatedly felt like I was watching the intense dramatic moments of human struggle unfold in a room of pantomimic buffoons. It felt kind of insulting, particularly to the bravery and stakes of the foreground performance, as well as undermining the danger of Burgess’ hyper-real underworld.

Which brings me roundly to this question of vision, or lack thereof: most notably, the entirely incongruous dance-breaks which punctuated the production, which perforated the production, destroying all sense of gravity and knifing the flow like an inexperienced writer with an over-enthusiastic and unwieldy command of the semi-colon: why?!

I get the ideas behind using dance to tell this story. In fact, I love the ideas behind using dance to tell this story: to increase menace by implying violence rather than showing it, to reek with this testosterone-charged, hyper-masculine aggression (not just figuratively), to interrogate this notion of gender and play with the fluidity of sexuality. Yep, all good. All great, in fact. So why do we suddenly have boys doing ballet?! What possible place do pretty pointed toes and posés en tournant, yes, a string of graceful pirouettes across the stage, have in this savage, chaotic, gritty dystopia?

The dance, which might have manifested in any one of a million other more than mildly successful ways, just wasn’t of the world. When it was not ballet, it was a slutty music video or Oxford Street on a Saturday night, neither of which is problematic in and of itself, but in this context served only to break with all sense of character, threat, aggression and buyable gang culture previously established through good work. It served only to trivialise the text, and to shatter my genuinely suspended disbelief. And again, and again.

Fight choreography that had been good in the “acting scenes” descended in the dance breaks into laughable bad mute mime compounded by the utterly painful experience of waiting for punches to land on the oonts-oonts electro beat. Dance battles might be OK in Rock Eisteddfod, but for a professional, internationally touring production? ‘Nuff said.

Conversely, the “acting scenes” had some really great imagery. Interesting shapes and arrangements and structures that served the drama more than enough without the naffness. It left me wondering, what is the style of this thing? Does the director know?

A Clockwork Orange is a story about the individual versus society; about the right to freewill versus the collective good. Positing gang culture, masculinity, racism, classism, unemployment, criminal opportunism and moral decay alongside the equally corrupt state, the failed penal system and the defunct church; it is the story of humans as animals. Not of humans who shake their animalism routine for vapid pop-dance interludes. Unfortunately, the director quite didn’t get that.

The details: A Clockwork Orange played the York Theatre, Seymour Centre on April 23 to May 5. The national tour includes Perth (May 7-19), Canberra (May 22-25) and Brisbane (May 28 to June 9) — more information on the show’s website.