By Faezah Zulkifli
(1,020 words, 4-minute read)
“ORANG_” The wordplay in Teater Ekamatra’s A Clockwork Orange is no accident. An inventive linguist, author Anthony Burgess, who lived in Malaysia in the 1950s, borrowed the title for his magnum opus from a Cockney expression, and introduced the pun on the Malay word ‘orang’ into the subject.
Performed by Rizman Putra, Shafiqhah Efandi, Suhaili Safari, Izzul Irfan, Roslan Kemat and Elnie S Mashari, Teater Ekamatra’s production of Burgess’ 1962 novel does not veer far off from the juxtaposition of the mechanical and the organic and human in the title. A dystopian satire, A Clockwork Orange centers around Al (Rizman Putra), a teenage delinquent who leads his saudara, or ‘brothers’, through an endless rampage of drunken violence, until his eventual capture and imprisonment puts him right at the centre of a new type of Pavlovian reform by state authorities intent on controlling antisocial behaviour by curtailing human free will.
Transcreator Zulfadli Rashid’s attempt to transpose the novel’s dystopian nightmare and linguistic intricacies onto the local stage is undoubtedly ambitious, but also his most daring endeavour yet. With a noteworthy repertoire of adapted work, from the re-presentations of Malay folklore in Alkesah (2018), to Harap (2017), a Malay adaptation of Haresh Sharma’s Hope, Zulfadli is unquestionably masterful in his portrayals of the Singaporean person in his writing. However, adapting A Clockwork Orange comes with its own challenge: unravelling Burgess’s fictive argot of Nadsat – the Russian-influenced English invented by Burgess for his characters. Zulfadli’s equivalent is subtle; greeting each other with “selams”, rather than the more commonly used “salam” or the Islamic greeting “Assalamualaikum”, and going out to soksek through the night, Al and his saudara speak a form hybrid of literary and vernacular Malay in a register that does not sound unfamiliar to the Malay ear, but tastes strange on the untrained tongue. Despite its subtleties, the borrowing of words from existing Islamic practices and street culture to create a new language is an unusual but intelligent linguistic choice that creates the effect of elevating counterculture and the everyday to religious levels.
Yet, this intentional discord within the Malay language’s linguistic boundaries comprises only one facet of director Noor Effendy Ibrahim’s nuanced portrayal of youth counterculture in the performance. Al’s universe is a fleshy and grotesque picture of the everyday. Set against the maniacal escapades of the versatile cast – who effortlessly rotate between various gender-reversed roles on a panopticon-esque arena stage – the defamiliarisation of the everyday in Mohd Fared Jainal and Akbar Syadiq’s production design, together with Safuan Johari’s soundscape, reflects the countercultural zeitgeist of Burgess’s 1960s Britain, while painting an unsettling parallel to present-day Singapore, where the facade of a homogeneous Malay culture within the state’s official CMIO framework is one that flattens the diverse lifestyles and traditions of the Malay Singaporean within this single category. Al’s story is not just a recount of his youth, but an assertion of the specific Malay Singaporean culture he belongs to that has been suppressed.
Like the original text and its well-known 1971 film counterpart, the performance does not cower away from the story’s depiction of extreme violence. Rizman’s leg brace (from an accident which led to the cancellation of the production’s opening night) only adds to the dark humour of the piece through metatheatrical references to his injury, and does nothing to hinder him, or the cast, from the visceral, bestial nature of the violence presented on stage. But despite the shocking ultraviolence of the piece, from the reckless and unrestrained shoving and strangling to the euphemised depictions of rape, humanity is not absent in Al and his saudara’s vicious romps. Where Burgess’s Al(ex) is engrossed with Beethoven, Al obsesses over keroncong in a tranquil contrast to his aggressive exploits. Masked like animals, the characters have on everyday dress, albeit worn in socially subversive ways. The costume palette is strikingly white, in an ironic foreshadowing to the kemurnian, or ‘purity’, that Al later seeks. Echoing the mechanics of a clock, the performance unfolds cyclically, marked by a sequence of repeated physical movements and voiceovers. But it isn’t a passive pattern; guided by Adrian Tan’s lighting design, each time Al returns to his seat, he brings us with him to a different stage of his narrative.
The overarching question at the mechanical heart of the performance is where choice lies in the conflict between freedom and control. Is it in “demokrasi?” When Al is caught for murder and imprisoned, he is ordered to adopt the digits ‘6655321’ as his name and strip away his white dress for a see-through coat, before falling into the nada, or ‘rhythm’, of institutional control by following the lyrics on a karaoke screen. We laugh at the kitschy set up and Al’s hypnotic singing, but the ritualistic parallels the scene draws to religion suggests something darker than its parts.
At the height of the piece, Al undergoes the “Othman (Arabic: ‘corrector’) Treatment” – an Orwellian form of aversion therapy designed to ‘cure’ Al of his violent tendencies and attain the kemurnian prison doctors brainwash him to achieve. In this terrifying climax, Eric Lee’s multimedia design introduces a more visual, mental manifestation of violence through a repetitive, erratic sequence of clips from varied sources, in a disturbing contrast to the heavy physical brutality in the first half of the performance. As the simulations successfully suppress Al’s violent desires, and Al is prized as the fascist state’s tour de force in pushing out crime, we are made aware that we are on the outside, looking into the performance’s panopticon.
The performance’s underlying message is clear – kemurnian comes at a cost: to be ‘pure’ is to suppress the internal desires that govern individual choice. The performance borrows from existing Western structures to speak about Singapore’s present condition in a wittily crafted thought experiment, but in doing so, it also bears witness – and has us bear witness – to the universality of human society’s choice dilemma, where freedom is measured against control. As the clock continues to tick, the question we are left asking is: can we get out of this nada, these rhythms of control? Or does freedom co-exist with control, like clockwork and orang(e)s?
Teater Ekamatra’s A Clockwork Orange ran from 25 to 29 September at the Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore. More info here.
Faezah Zulkifli is a theatremaker in new theatre practices and technologies and holds an M.A. in Advanced Theatre Practice from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. She is currently Artistic Director of local theatre company FK Co-Lab and a company member of London theatre collective ‘PUNKT.