Interview: Six Stabs & Beethoven
This is the second time Oxford students Jonny Danciger and John Paul have joined forces on a theatrical production. Their first show, Mercury Fur, received an overwhelmingly positive critical response. Their current project is A Clockwork Orange, opening in London next week. I spoke with producer and musical director, John Paul, about his concept for the music.
SW: Why is the music so interesting?
JP: The original score is rather peculiar. It’s an amalgamation of styles. What we’ve done is strip back Burgess’ kooky atonal stuff and bring it right back to what Alex hears and imagines — most importantly, imagines. Using Beethoven for this makes the music outline the story in such a way that you can reference Alex’s frame of mind through the music. As the music changes from non-diegetic to diegetic, from within Alex’s head into the world that he perceives, you see how he starts to lose control of his own destiny, becoming part of this free thought experiment. Using Beethoven on stage is interesting. We’ve had to ensure that it still has power, which we’ve done using equalization and sound design on top of the music.
What does the music show about Alex’s character?
It shows his naivety. It shows how he has created this world which is entirely his, and is what the audience sees at the start of the play. What’s so shocking as it starts to break down is that the audience realises, with Alex, that his world is not the real world. The music becomes more sterile as Alex starts to disconnect with his world and is thrust into the reality of being in prison and being subject to this thought experiment.
How does it tie in with the role of the ensemble?
There are lots of opportunities for fight choreography to be done with excellent, bombastic, larger-than-life effect to what, in any other circumstance, would be inappropriate music. The opening of the show uses the finale of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which provides a backing to the fight scene between Alex’s droogs and Billyboy’s gang. What’s interesting about using Beethoven in particular is that his music is a lot more suited to fighting. The rhythmic intensity, a certain power, the right kind of bounce that matches a natural movement — Beethoven’s more willing to break free from form for dramatic effect. Mozart would do three stabs to signify the ending; Beethoven would give six stabs, just before the ending, despite the fact that that’s not what would have been done before.
Although the play begins with violent, horrible scenes, the music is at its brightest and its cheeriest. As you come to the prison scene things become either a lot more dramatic, or more apathetic. You start to see this distinction, this rending apart of Alex’s world where the music is either very much happening or starting to be removed. It’s not quite right with what’s gone before. Music in the torture scene completely subverts what’s gone before as it’s completely devoid of emotion. The reasoning for this is Brodsky’s line, where she says ‘I find music nothing more than a convenient heightener of emotion’. It has no purpose in that environment other than as a subject of something else — here, the conditioning experiment.
What’s next for Barricade Arts?
Having got the company off the ground with these two theatrical productions, we want to start branching out musically as well. There will be concerts in which a dramatic performance will play a large part, albums … We want this to be not just a production company, more about a community, incorporating other productions and making sure people engage with progressive art in various forms.
What’s progressive about what you do?
First of all, it’s the combining of art forms — everything we’ve done with A Clockwork Orange and Mercury Fur. Music is such an important facet of Alex’s character. It’s pretty much the only relatable thing about him. At the moment we’re incorporating music in theatre; what’s a lot harder to do is bringing the theatrical into the concert hall. Not harder, but more taboo. There’s a lot less give and take. Also the nature of what we do — doing A Clockwork Orange as a stage adaptation is not the first thing you would think of, and particularly not in suburban West London or an Oxford student theatre.
True, but it’s not exactly an unknown text.
Not unknown text, not unknown film, but unknown stage adaptation, which, it has to be said, Burgess did not take seriously. It’s a very challenging script to work with and has taken a lot of care and attention, in the direction and the music, to create what we want to achieve.
Why should people see the show?
[Points to Gerard Krasnopolski, playing Alex, rehearsing outside] That. Gerard dancing, that’s what. We’ve got a cast of excellent, committed actors with a team of very experienced theatre practitioners. We’re headed by a director who knows exactly what he wants. As Jonny [director] said himself — there’s no better way of saying it — it’s impossible to have a passive experience. It will engage and it will challenge an audience.
The show isn’t gimmicky. A Clockwork Orange has become a cult object of fascination, not a piece of art, whereas this production strips that away. Despite the very stylised music and physical theatre, it is still very believable and still very relatable.
There’ll probably be a lot of confusion. There will be a lot of, Oh, I’m not entirely following what’s happening because Alex is terrible, but Brodsky is terrible, and the minister is also quite creepy. It will take a lot of thinking. It’s not something you can see and just watch; it’s something you’ll have to engage with. Otherwise, the nuance of direction and musical intent will all be lost, because it’s all so dependent on engaging with Alex’s character and seeing how it changes.
A Clockwork Orange
London: 20th-24th September, OSO Arts Centre, 49 Station Road, Barnes, SW13 0LF
Oxford: 11th-16th October, Keble O'Reilly Theatre, Blackhall Road