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Meet the Director Bringing Homoerotic Theater to a Censorship State

Stanley Kubrick's film was banned in Singapore until 2011. Now a new stage play is pushing the boundaries even further.

by Robert O'Connor
Dec 10 2015, 3:25pm

A scene from Action to the Word's 'A Clockwork Orange'

"People say Alex Delarge is dangerous. Of course he's dangerous, he's a teenage boy," says Alexandra Spencer-Jones, whose hyper-sexualized stage adaptation of A Clockwork Orange has just returned to London from Singapore. She has something of a soft spot for Anthony Burgess's maligned anti-hero. "Alexander literally means 'defender of my kind,'" she says. "We have to see him as a savior."

It's a fitting choice of words. In 1971, Stanley Kubrick's film version of Clockwork was banned in Singapore, a restriction which lasted 40 years before permission was finally granted for it to be shown for the first time at a national film festival in 2011. When Spencer-Jones's company Action to the Word took its show to the island in November, she was shocked.

"I spoke at a writers' conference over there where the host was homosexual, which is also essentially outlawed," she says. "It isn't illegal, but it's such a Christian place that it basically is. You'd never see two men kiss in public."

"At the end of this conference the host was so emotional he was almost crying. It was such an incredibly big deal to him that two men would be able to kiss on the stage."

And they do kiss. Hard. Action to the Word's Clockwork is scarcely recognizable from the 1970 film which shocked cinema-goers and censors. The stage is stripped bare leaving space for ten actors dressed only in snug-fitting trousers and braces to writhe among each other in a homoerotic carnival of sweat, muscle, and skin.

It's also uncompromisingly faithful to the sadism that made the story famous, but this wasn't the focus of the moral censors. "When we performed in Hong Kong two years ago the government of Singapore came to see the show to see if we could get it past the censors," she says. "We did have to modify it a lot, but it was mostly the references to Christianity. Which was just bizarre."

"We weren't allowed to emulate any sexual reference at the same time as holding the Bible, but we were allowed to show a woman being beaten over the head to death. There's a moment where Alex masturbates whilst holding the Bible that had to go. But the point of that scene is that he enjoys the violence in the Bible, and how hypocritical it is that the Bible is the only book you have access to in prison, yet it's the most violent book of all time.

"You can't talk about crucifixion flippantly in Singapore, so when Alex says he'd like to hammer in the nails himself, all that had to go too. That didn't offend me though; what did offend me was them saying that two men kissing was OK, but emulating any sexual activity between men was a problem. So you can be gay, yeah, but not too gay. The censors were very, very clear. They can kiss but they can't touch each other's knobs."

But audiences were accepting of what they saw. There were none of the placards or protests outside Singapore's Esplanade Theatre that Spencer-Jones had expected; the press lauded it, too. So much so that the director feels the company could have made a more public show of the fact that they were giving two-fingers to a ban that had left a nation deprived of the work for four decades. "We should have gone further" she concedes, albeit from the relative safety of a rehearsal room in a south London youth club. "We should have really said 'yeah, we're changing history.'"

Here the moral compass begins to feel a little scrambled. Singapore is a country where you can legally play Grand Theft Auto with all its incumbent flesh-based indulgences, yet whose moral guardians placed Ben Stiller's Zoolander alongside Clockwork on the blacklist for three years between 2001 and 2004. Kubrick's film itself fell foul of the censors on account of the frivolity with which it presents and addresses rape, but the ways in which sexual violence bleeds into other media across the country's entertainment culture leave the picture feeling more than a little incomplete.

ATTW's most hostile reaction was received not on the ultra-conservative shores of Singapore, however. That came at the world's biggest gathering of art lovers at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 2009, when a stag party took exception to the scantily clad all-male collective, exiting literally via the stage with a succinct review of their own. "'Fucking faggots,' I think they said. They'd basically just turned up because they thought they were going to see a girl get raped."

Back in south London there does seem to be some unresolved ambivalence amongst Spencer-Jones's own thoughts about her protagonist, the sociopathic and violently indulgent Alex Delarge.

"I spent a lot of time back in 2009 when I was planning the first show speaking to people who had been through borstals and other correctional places," she says. "I spoke to one guy who'd been through a borstal and then onto Cambridge University. He was incredibly academic but his brain was exploding with too much thought. Another guy I spoke to was very honest about acting out because of frustration.

"But I don't think Alex is frustrated, I didn't see him in these people that I spoke to. I actually found more of him when reading about people like Stalin and Hitler. I found Alex in educators, politicians, and world leaders.

"His philosophy is that there's no reason not to be the best you can be as a human. He's very Spartan in that way. Everything about the way he's written is justified, he never thinks I'm going to be a little shit now. He's not a good guy, I don't think it's as straightforward as that. But he's not a bad guy."

Spencer-Jones's relationship with a character she's lived alongside for six years appears deep, dark, and permanent; you feel there isn't a living artist who is as moved by, nor as responsible for, Alex Delarge and the mark he's left on our culture. Thanks to her there is one less part of the world shielded from his peculiar story.

Action to the Word will be bringing A Clockwork Orange back to London in the new year.