The Black Rider, a CurtainUp London review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
The Black Rider
by Lizzie Loveridge

There is more to life than to fill your heart with dreams
You don't build your house from the willow by the stream

--- lyrics from "But He's Not Wilhelm"
The Black Rider
Matt McGrath as Wilhelm and Marianne Faithfull as Pegleg
(Photo: Brinkhoff Mögenburg, Hamburg)
Avant garde Texan director Robert Wilson returns to London after Woyzeck his success of last year with another musical, with the music written by Tom Waits. The dialogue this time is from William S. Burroughs, the beat poet who died in 1997. The Black Rider is not a new musical as it was first produced fourteen years ago in Germany and, reading a description of that production, it seems largely similar to the one mounted at London's Barbican theatre.

Whilst much of the style is Wilson, and stylish his interesting shows always are, I was disappointed. I think that "The Black Rider" music may not be Waits' very best and the simplistic Faustian fairy tale story-line from which the book is taken does not allows a great deal of manoeuvre for depth of characterisation.

The Black Rider or The Casting of the Magic Bullets is about a clerk Wilhelm (Matt McGrath) who falls in love with Katchen (Mary Margaret O'Hara) the daughter of a forester, Bertram (Dean Robinson). Bertram wants his daughter to marry Robert, a Hunting Boy (Nigel Richards) but will agree to her marrying Wilhelm if he can win a shooting contest. Wilhelm is a useless marksman but agrees to a pact with the Devil, PegLeg (Marianne Faithfull), whereby she gives him twelve magic bullets not all of which will serve him. The final bullet is aimed at a white dove but kills his wife to be. Wilhelm ends his days in a lunatic asylum.

The play opens with a black coffin shaped box, upright but pivoting on one of its corners out of which emerges the Devil followed by a procession of the weirdest characters each with his specially interpretative walk. It is an exciting opening. The backdrop to the sets are blown-up charcoal drawings. One set has a table and chairs, impossibly stylised cut out from a curious angle and suspended above the stage. What enthrals is less the set than the lighting and the colours of Wilson's simplified but eclectic designs. The people look odd -- for example, the forester's hair stands up like trees.

The percussionists work extremely hard with saws and unusual sounding instruments presenting a cacophony. Almost everyone ends up sounding a little like Tom Waits, taking up a more rasping and gravely delivery. By contrast I really liked Mary Margaret O'Hara's sweet singing voice and Matt McGrath, despite reminding me a little of the MC in Cabaret (editor's note: a part he played for a spell on Broadway), succeeds in making us feel his pain. Inevitably however too many of the performances are caricature and fail to engage our emotions.

Marianne Faithfull as the Devil has a wonderful shoulder swinging swaggering walk which we practised all the way back to the car park at the end of the show. Of course she has a series of brightly coloured suits with ground dragging tails to exaggerate the movement. I liked too Richard Strange as the Old Forester who's trapped by his past error in a kind of purgatory.

This may not be for me the best collaboration between Waits and Wilson and frankly Burroughs' words were wasted on me. However, for anyone who has never seen a production from the extraordinary Robert Wilson, this nevertheless is a must see.

The Black Rider
Written by William S Burroughs
Music and Lyrics by Tom Waits
Direction, set and lighting by Robert Wilson

Starring: Marianne Faithfull and Matt McGrath
With: Jack Willis, Monika Tahal, Gabriella Santinelli, Nigel Richards, Richard Strange, Sona Cervena, Jake Thornton, Janet Henfrey, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Dean Robinson
Costume Design: Frida Pareggiani
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 0845 120 7516
Booking to 12th June 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st May 2004 performance at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street London EC2 (Tube: Barbican)
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