Bringing together opera, avant guard theatre and cabaret, Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets is easily one of the best shows going at this year’s Melbourne Festival. And no wonder – the script was written by beatnik writer William S. Burroughs with music and lyrics by Grammy-award winning singer-song writer Tom Waits. The show originally premiered in Hamburg in 1990 and was directed by Robert Wilson who took it to Sydney in 2005. There, Matthew Lutton fell in love with it and twelve years later, he brings it to the Malthouse to rapturous applause.
Based on the same German folk tale that inspired Weber’s 19th Century opera Der Freischütz, Black Rider tells the story of Wilhelm (Kanen Breen), a naïve file clerk who makes a Faustian (in the truest sense of the word) deal with the devil in order to marry his true love Käthchen (Dimity Shepherd). Käthchen’s father (Richard Piper) is a forester and refuses to let her marry Wilhelm unless he can prove himself a decent hunter. That’s where the devil (who’s name is Pegleg and is played with panache by the very talented Meow Meow) comes in, giving Wilhelm seven magic bullets – six that won’t miss their mark and a special one that Pegleg retains control over. No doubt you see where this is going, but the ride is well worth your time.
A self-styled musical fable, Black Rider is a dark and decadent allegory of addiction, full of vivid, hallucinogenic soul. The story mirrors events in Burroughs life, his on going struggle with heroin addiction and the tragic death of his second wife, Joan Vollmer, who Burroughs shot in a drunken attempt to recreate the William Tell legend of shooting an apple off someone’s head. The descent into addiction, while surreal, is brimming with palpable lived experience.
The music carries the emotional weight of this descent, beginning big and rich early on and descending through dirty, bluesy, jazzy numbers and cry-in-beer ballads into cacophony and rawness. Opera mixes with wild, guttural vocals to produce something quite unreal and visceral – you feel it right in your middle. And all this backed by a chamber orchestra of ten incredibly talented musicians playing everything from the trombone to the xylophone, the saw to the banjo, and even wine glasses.
The whole macabre musical is staged in an eerie three-walled cube, complete with secret doors, pop-outs, beautiful roll-out backdrops and other hidden surprises. It’s a feat of extraordinarily clever set design by Zoë Atkinson, who manages to turn white walls into something dynamic and haunting.
While in parts the physical theatre seems to not quite hit the mark, Black Rider hardly suffers for it. It’s a wildly compelling, wickedly fun retelling of a folkloric staple, every minute charged with dark and portentous energy.
Playing at Malthouse Theatre until October 8
Director: Matthew Lutton
Original Music and Lyrics: Tom Waits
Script: William S. Burroughs
Cast: Kanen Breen , Paul Capsis , Jacqueline Dark, Winston Hillyer, Le Gateau Chocolat, Meow Meow, Richard Piper and Dimity Shepherd
Musical Direction: Phoebe Briggs
Set and Costume Design: Zoë Atkinson