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Black Rider: Selling Your Soul in the Devil’s Playground

Kanen Breen, Meow Meow and Paul Capsis in The Black Rider. Image Credit: Zan Wimberley and Magnus Hastings
Jo Litson
| September 12, 2017

When Robert Wilson’s bizarrely beautiful production of The Black Rider played at the Sydney Festival in 2005, Matthew Lutton was in the audience and remembers “the spectacle” of “an extraordinary theatrical event.”

Twelve years on, Lutton – now Artistic Director of Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre – is directing the dark, delirious pop opera with songs by Tom Waits and script by William S. Burroughs. “This is a passion project that I’ve been wanting to do for several years,” says Lutton who is helming a co-production between Malthouse and Victorian Opera, with some performances at Melbourne Festival.

To bring the theatrical fantasia to macabre life, Lutton has gathered a cast of “some of Australia’s greatest seducers” including Meow Meow, Kanen Breen, Jacqueline Dark, Paul Capsis and Le Gateau Chocolat.

The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets is based on the same German folktale that inspired Weber’s 19th-century opera Der Freischütz. Wilhelm (Breen), a mild-mannered young clerk, falls in love with Katchen (Dimity Shepherd), the woodsman’s daughter. However, her father (Richard Piper) insists she marry a hunter and Wilhelm hardly knows one end of a gun from the other. Enter Pegleg (Meow Meow), the devil, who offers Wilhelm a Faustian deal – six magic silver bullets that will never miss their mark. And then one bullet over which Pegleg has control.

The dark, modernist fable, which explores themes of temptation and addiction, also references Burroughs’ own life. In 1951, he accidentally shot his second wife Joan Vollmer during a drunken William Tell game. Burroughs, who drew on his experience as a heroin addict in much of his writing, highlights the story’s hallucinogenic qualities.

“I think it’s a piece that starts as a romance and descends into a hallucinogenic nightmare. That’s a really important structure for the show in that it’s a descent into an addiction. As part of that journey you have an immense high and a spectacle of being on top of the world and how extraordinary that feels, and then the pummelling down to a sense of nightmarish depths,” says Lutton. “That’s also what happens musically. Early on there is the sense of it being a big, rich musical world and then it descends into this cacophony and real Waits ‘bone music’ as it progresses – so there’s quite a bit of diversity there.”

Waits’ music is dirty and bluesy with “cry-in-beer ballads” and nods to Kurt Weill and Jewish Klezmer. Reviewing the show’s 1993 premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, The New York Times said: “The clunking percussiveness of Mr Waits’ music has always evoked a stark picture of the human being as a shivering, grunting, rattling sack of bones, a living scarecrow. But… his heart bleeds for characters who cry out their needs and dreams in songs that sound like reassembled fragments of tunes learned as a child.”

Lutton and Music Director Phoebe Briggs have chosen performers who are able to bridge the different vocal worlds in the piece. Kanen Breen, for example, recently won a Helpmann Award for his portrayal of the Witch of Endor in Barrie Kosky’s production of Saul. At the same time, he and Jacqui Dark perform together as a deliciously bawdy cabaret duo, which they call Strange Bedfellows.

“Wilhelm needs to begin in a strong operatic voice and then descend into a cacophony of dirty, wild vocals and Kanen can do all of that,” says Lutton. “I think we have a really amazing ensemble of shape-shifters. They’re musicians and actors that can do basically anything. Meow Meow, Paul Capsis and Le Gateau Chocolat are masters of the cabaret and Weimar world. But then there are singers like Kanen, Jacqui and Dimity who cross genres from classical to cabaret.”

Zoe Atkinson’s design uses the idea of a box being opened to unleash a carnival. “The whole set is like a puppet-making machine, that’s controlled by Pegleg, almost as if [the characters] are trapped souls endlessly replaying these stories in a vaudevillian way,” says Lutton. “It’s like the devil’s playground, and the cast create what they require using a lot of blood and mess on stage.”

* Article supplied by Limelight Magazine as part of our Classical Music Partnership.

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