Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 20/05/2004.
This production of The Black Rider toured San Francisco and Sydney as promised in the links section below, and then had a final run in Los Angeles in 2006. A separate production by November Theatre has been touring Canada for the last few years.
Tom Waits finally did a London show of his own in November 2004, and was bloody great.
The creative team behind The Black Rider pushes so many cool buttons simultaneously, it's a wonder it's got any fingers left.
Tom Waits, songwriter. "A poet on wheels," as a former manager of mine once drunkenly described him. You find Waits fans in the most unlikely places, don't you? I've been one of those fans for several years now, since the one-two punch of hearing him on the soundtrack of Down By Law and being lent a tape of the Asylum Years compilation by Lou. I'm massively annoyed that shortly after this discovery, Lou got to see Waits play live in London and I didn't: and, needless to say, the scruffy get has never set foot on these shores since. But his records are always an event.
William Burroughs, author. Currently the most dead of the people on this list. I've never read any of his stuff, but I've been intrigued by the couple of attempts made at translating it to film. And he always had one of the great American voices: my fondest memory of the man is his voiceover for the Naked Lunch trailer, announcing that David Cronenberg was making a film of one of his most notorious books. "Run for your lives, America! Head for the hills!"
Robert Wilson, director. Notorious avant-garde minimalist. I don't make a habit of doing opera, but for The Belated Birthday Girl's birthday last year we splashed out on a couple of seats for Wilson's production of Aïda. As outsiders, it was fun for us to follow the bitching in the press afterwards: because an opera that generally requires lavish gold-covered sets and wall-to-wall elephants was for the most part played out in front of a blank screen with a few coloured lights. Wilson can make audiences pay hundreds of pounds to see his work, and then piss them off repeatedly, and you've got to admire that.
Marianne Faithfull, performer. Rolling Stones, Mars bar, you know the stories. But since her notoriety in the sixties, she's developed a solid reputation as an interpreter of other people's songs. She's one of the few singers who's attempted a Tom Waits number (Strange Weather) and come off better for it. Unlike, say, Rod Stewart. Minor digression here, but I'm amused that the hellish West End show Tonight's The Night: The Rod Stewart Musical has recently had to be retitled The Rod Stewart Musical: Tonight's The Night, presumably because the intended audience found the original title too subtle. It's a lack of subtlety that also shows itself in Stewart's Tom Waits covers: just having a sixty-fags-a-day croak doesn't entitle you to perform this music. You've got to feel it as well, something Ms Faithfull knows all about.
Waits, Burroughs and Wilson got together in 1989 to collaborate on a piece of theatre. The result was The Black Rider: The Casting Of The Magic Bullets (to give it its full title), which premiered in a German language production at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg in 1990. English speakers have had a long wait to see it for themselves. Waits released a splendid album of the songs in 1993 that whetted appetites enormously. The Metropol Theater of Munich came this close to bringing the show over to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1999, but had to cancel at the last minute. It's not until 2004 that we've finally got to see the work in English on a British stage, with Faithfull in the lead. So The Black Rider comes here with a large burden of expectation riding upon it. And that's why I think it's worth spending a bit of time looking at why it doesn't work.
The Black Rider is described in the programme as 'a musical fable', which is typically the way that writers justify having a narrative that would fit easily on the back of a matchbook. Our MCs for the night are Marianne Faithfull and Jack Willis: both vaguely sinister figures, for the most part they hover on the edge of the action rather than actively participating (with one crucial exception). They produce all our characters for the evening from the inside of a black box, with a song that's a bizarre cross between the theme tunes of Cabaret and The Flintstones ("Come on along with the Black Rider / We'll have a gay old time").
The story they introduce is that of Wilhelm (Matt McGrath), a clerk in love with forester's daughter Käthchen (Mary Margaret O'Hara). Her father won't allow them to marry until Wilhelm can prove his prowess with a hunting rifle: and, unfortunately, Wilhelm doesn't have any prowess. Pegleg (Faithfull) appears as the Devil to offer Wilhelm a deal, offering him a fistful of magic bullets. Wilhelm takes them, and pretty soon his house is ankle deep in deer corpses, due to his suddenly improved shooting skills. The marriage is arranged as planned, but inevitably there's a price to be paid. As they say, when you get into the magic bullets, "that leads straight to Devil's work, just like marijuana leads to heroin..."
The co-producers of The Black Rider are Cultural Industry, the people that brought you Shockheaded Peter a few years ago: and you can see that this show is aiming for the same kind of junkyard aesthetic, mixing and matching styles at will. Musically, it pulls that off perfectly. An eight-piece band called The Magic Bullets has been assembled specifically for the show: led by Bent Clausen, it's made up of well-travelled session players who you'll probably find in the small print of many of your favourite records (such as Terry Edwards of Gallon Drunk and Kate St John of Dream Academy). Since Waits' 1983 album Swordfishtrombones there's a certain style we associate with the man: a loose, percussion-driven racket that always sounds on the verge of collapse but never goes so far as to sound dissonant. The Magic Bullets nail that style beautifully, without ever sounding like a Tom Waits tribute band. And vocally, there's a nice mixture of people making some sort of attempt at singing in the Waits register, and some doing their own thing. Either way, although the composer hasn't got anything physically to do with the music performance here, I'd imagine he'd be very happy with it.
So yes, the music's great. The problem is everything else getting in the way of it.
Ultimately, the finger of blame has to point primarily at director Robert Wilson. It seems a bit rich to be able to spot a director's cliches after only seeing two of his productions, but there are quite a few Wilsonian effects that are common to both this piece and Aïda. Huge colour washes of light used as static backdrops, sometimes with rapid colour changes as the only points of interest. Over-exaggerated proportions in props and costumes. And when in doubt, have an actor walk slowly from one side of the stage to the other. There's no denying there are some extraordinary visual images on display: in particular, a repeated motif of a man standing at a crossroads in the middle of a stone circle seems creepily familiar, like the landscape in Eraserhead looking exactly like the place where some of your dreams happen. And the use of a simple black box in the framing sequences has a certain elegance to it. But the heavy debt to German Expressionist cinema gets repetitive - there are only so many times an actor can turn to you with their mouth wide open representing 'horror' before it just starts looking ridiculous.
Worst of all, despite Wilson's reputation as a minimalist, the staging alternates between stripped-down bare boards and hugely over-the-top effects: and frequently, the switch from one to the other is fumbled badly. This particularly applies to my two favourite musical numbers in the show. The Briar And The Rose is one of those effortlessly beautiful ballads that Waits has been writing all his life, and it's the point in The Black Rider where Wilhelm and Käthchen profess their love for each other. Now, I don't care how avant-garde a director you are, when it gets to this point in a story you pull everything back and just focus on the two people trying to communicate with each other. You do not, repeat not, hang them both from the ceiling on fucking wires and have them flying around the stage. Meanwhile, at the other extreme, Waits' instrumental piece Russian Dance - admittedly only there to cover for a scene change - is a huge, boisterous affair bringing to mind the mental image of a legion of pissed Cossacks stomping all over the stage. Instead, dancers representing Pegleg and Wilhelm do a feeble pas de deux in front of a curtain, and it's so visually uninteresting you end up watching the band instead. (Not quite as bad as the time when I saw Michael Clark and his dancers performing alongside the Fall, and suddenly realised in horror that I was looking at Mark E Smith more than the dancing. But like that.)
Burroughs' contribution is little better, really. For the most part, he's taken the 'fable' copout as an excuse to write all the dialogue as badly-rhyming doggerel, with only the occasional verbal image of interest. The best moment in the text is a passage that appears to be written as one of Burroughs' legendary cut-up pieces, with the bonus of Jack Willis doing a pretty good reproduction of the man's speaking voice. In fact, virtually all the cast acquit themselves well despite the limitations of the material. Faithfull's contribution is fairly small considering the fuss all the adverts make of her participation, but she performs the songs with her expected gusto (apart from a few preview night radio mike glitches): and Matt McGrath is very good as Wilhelm. If there's a weak link in the performances, it's Mary Margaret O'Hara as Käthchen, still honking and babbling like a slapped elk, just like she did when she was inexplicably popular for a few minutes back in the eighties.
In the end, the music is the main reason to see The Black Rider, and for some people it may well be the only reason. To get back to Cultural Industry's involvement, the reason why Shockheaded Peter worked so well was because its myriad collaborators - director, designer, actors, puppeteers, musicians and so on - were all working towards a single viewpoint, one that was easily identifiable as that of the show itself. Here, the three main creative talents simply don't mesh: Waits' songs, Burroughs' text and Wilson's visuals all exist alongside each other and barely interact. The result is the opposite of a traditional musical, where you accept the musical numbers as an interruption to the flow of the story: here, you're tapping your foot during the story, impatient for the next song to come along. The only people who will get any real enjoyment out of The Black Rider are Waits fans with sufficient capacity for self-delusion to pretend that the rest of the show isn't happening. Mind you, that kind of works for me. Being a monkey, and all.
The Barbican Centre is showing The Black Rider [dead link] as part of their Barbican International Theatre Events, or BITE for short. It's running from May 17th to June 19th 2004. After that, expect it to travel to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater from August 26th to September 26th, and then to the Sydney Festival in January 2005.
Cultural Industry - and let's hope someone buys them a copy of HTML For Dummies very soon - are the co-producers of The Black Rider, and are still keeping the site running for their previous hit Shockheaded Peter. The latter had a series of farewell performances in London in April 2004: but given that it's had more comebacks than Sinatra, keep an eye on the site in case it gets yet another revival.
Tom Waits and Robert Wilson both have their own official home pages. I'm sure William Burroughs [dead link] would have one too if he wasn't so goddamn dead, but this is a good substitute. And Marianne Faithfull's "official site" looks suspiciously like a fan site with delusions of grandeur, but it's very informative regardless.
Wikipedia is the user-maintained internet encyclopedia of all arcane knowledge and wisdom. Tom Waits, William Burroughs and Marianne Faithfull are all cool enough to have their own entries. There appears to be some confusion over Robert Wilson's entry, though. Anyone out there willing to contribute?
Studio AKA have a 15mb Quicktime video clip [dead link] of one of my favourite Burroughs movie projects: Philip Hunt's animated short of Ah Pook Is Here [dead link] narrated by the man himself. See what I mean about that voice? [YouTube to the rescue, as ever.]