23 Sep 2017, Malthouse Theatre
Morality plays are supposed to safeguard us against misguided desires and reckless gambles. But this helter-skelter folk-cabaret-opera hybrid, by legendary musician Tom Waits and beat poetry icon William S Burroughs, is not so much a cautionary tale as it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Black Rider is loosely based on the German fable best known from Weber’s opera Der Freischutz, draping a skin of folkloric tradition over the bones of Burroughs’ turbulent battle with addiction, in a show that is both fantasy and memoir.
Taking its origins from that ages-old trope, the devil’s bargain, this is a well-worn (if not worn out) narrative. Wilhelm, a man of intelligence and education, seeks to marry Kätchen, the daughter of a Woodsman. Her father, however, will not consent to the match; a proven hunter will win her hand, not a pencil pusher. Wilhelm is a hopeless outdoorsman and an even worse shot. His only option is to accept magic bullets from the psycho-chic Pegleg, aka Satan. These rounds are guaranteed to always hit their target, and the bookish clerk quickly begins gunning down all fauna and fowl unfortunate enough to cross his sights. However, as the death toll spirals out of control, his dependence on this bewitched arsenal descends into a full-blown addiction. With a grim sense of inevitability, he becomes the devil’s junkie. Wilhelm will agree to any terms to get his fix, but it will be his bride who pays the ultimate price.
While the echoes of Burroughs’ life are uncanny – he too was an educated addict who accidentally shot his lover playing a drunken game of William Tell – this show doesn’t over-labour either its allegorical or biopic subtexts.
Black Rider’s original staging was directed by the great auteur Robert Wilson, who was an equal collaborator in its creation, tailoring it to his favoured aesthetic, extreme German expressionism (think Brecht on acid). This poses a challenge for a director seeking to create their own interpretation. With so much of Wilson’s directorial DNA already spliced into the genetic make-up of the piece, finding a credible and original viewpoint is far from straightforward. That director Matthew Lutton has managed to preserve the spirit of Wilson’s vision while conjuring a production entirely his own, is remarkable in and of itself.
Black Rider is not, however, without its faults. With its cast of ghoulish carnies, and its fractious, episodic pace, this show's motives can seem emotionally aloof. Conventional measures of character development make way for a more aggressively modernist brand of drama; highly stylised, severely unsentimental, blackly comic. Freewheeling between satire, parable and pantomime, the show contains moments of the campest gothic horror, vaudevillian slapstick, folksy pastiche, and risqué cabaret. It’s a witches’ brew of dramatic ideas, that might otherwise add-up to an unbearable hodgepodge of Franken-theatre, if not for the galvanising presence of Waits’ music.
Ironically, it’s a score as stylistically ambidextrous as Burroughs’ dramatisation. American parlour songs, mellifluous folk ballads, Weill-esque jazz numbers, deep Southern Blues and more, all intermingle. Over this Babel’s Tower of musical genres, Waits applies a forensically judged level of grime, carefully calibrated to just the right degree of ugly. The result is a roiling-boil of stewed, murky sounds and claggy, cloying timbres, smeared over sweet, sensuous melodies.
Lutton, assisted by set designer Zoe Atkinson, takes his cues from this score. Musical vernaculars that are more conventionally pleasing, when the characters are at their furthest from the forces of evil (such as in the beautifully simple folk duet The Briar And The Rose) are staged as physically deliberate dioramas, the cast adopting the gait of clockwork automatons. They exist in a world of predictable order and protocol, their purposes clearly defined. As the devil’s influence looms large and Waits grinds his songs into a gnarled, hellish cacophony, the action becomes basely animalistic, mirroring the score’s grotesque momentum with flailing limbs and slime-slicked bodies. Pegleg’s moral decay begins to corrupt the very stage itself; walls bleed and tear, and Wilhelm can do little more than writhe in the resulting filth.
As a theatre-maker, Lutton has never shied away from making herculean demands on his actors, but his Black Rider calls for a level of committed athleticism that borders on sadistic. It’s a sign of the sky-high calibre of the cast he has assembled that there’s never a moment this effort shows.
There could hardly be a better choice for the role of Pegleg than subversive chanteuse Meow Meow. She can turn on a dime from dastardly villainess to awkward raconteur in a performance that excels in its grandest gestures, while also thrumming with nuanced detail. Kanen Breen, who boasts fine form as both an opera singer and cabaret jester, surrenders himself wholeheartedly to the demise of Wilhelm. He takes his performance to dangerous extremes, and yet his finesse and vocal polish never falter. Paul Capsis unleashes full throttle delirium, most notably in a downright batshit vignette with a delightfully wild coup de theatre (I won’t spoil the surprise), providing the perfect shrill counterpoint to Le Gateau Chocolat’s syrupy baritone. Richard Piper spins gold with every syllable as the father to Dimity Shepherd’s sweetly pitiful Kätchen, and Jacqueline Dark brings something of her Sound Of Music Mother Superior to the account of Kätchen’s mother.
Under the baton of musical director Phoebe Briggs, the orchestra delivers a knockout performance that luxuriates in every bilious groan of Waits’ mucky music, while keeping pace with the boundary-busting antics of the cast. It’s thrilling to experience such a savage and uncompromising work delivered so virtuosically, but of course, suffering and talent are oddly aligned in Black Rider. The notion of the tortured genius may well be a tired cliché, but Burroughs’ suffering, and Waits’ empathy for it, courses through the veins of this piece. For some, this might be a warning to avoid the same mistakes, but there’s an undeniable note of fatalism too; such art can surely only come from those who understand what it means to sell their soul.
First published 24 Sep 2017, for Time Out Melbourne