THE BLACK RIDER - MELBOURNE
BLACK RIDER: THE CASTING OF THE MAGIC BULLETS – Malthouse Theatre & Victorian Opera in association with the Melbourne Festival, 15 September-8 October 2017. Photography by Pia Johnson: above - Kanen Breen and Meow Meow; below - Le Gateau Chocolate and Paul Capsis
The Merlyn Theatre at the Malthouse has turned into a proscenium theatre with a pit for this production of Black Rider. In the pit is the Victorian Opera orchestra, well, quite a lot of it, doing wonderful things with the score under the ever-watchful and brilliant eye of musical director Phoebe Briggs, and music supervisor Iain Grandage. No easy feat with music by Tom Waits and instruments that would fit better in a Weimar cabaret.
As the audience settles in there is discordant waltz music playing in the background as we check out the musicians and wonder what lies behind the softly draped curtain. Then the orchestra seamlessly takes up the strains, and while some are still chatting, Meow Meow slowly enters, all black-clad legs and hands; staring, moving, slowly tempting us to settle, because she has something to say. With a hand gesture, she has our full attention. Meow Meow is Pegleg, the epitome of the she devil; wary, she lets us know that if you are truly good you can’t be seduced, then she cranks open the curtain to reveal a white box set, and a cast in whiteface.
The gist of the German folk tale is simple: two people – male and female, this is Australia after all – who love each other and want to marry. The daughter’s father (Richard Piper) forbids it, his daughter Katchen (Dimity Shephed) must marry someone who knows how to hunt; her suitor Wilhelm (Kanen Breen) is a book keeper.
So desperate for her hand is Wilhelm that he enters the forest to teach himself how to shoot – learning first how to pick up a gun - cue vaudeville. Hapless, he is given a magic bullet by Pegleg and bingo, no animal is safe. Here the lesson begins.
There are only six bullets for him and one for the devil to do as she decides. If it were pantomime the audience would be yelling “don’t do it”. Needless to say, he becomes addicted to the hunt. The thrill of the kill wins over the romantic heart.
The seventh bullet? I realised then it would be a tragic end and perhaps not far removed from author of the original text William Burroughs’ reference to the killing of his wife during a drunken William Tell moment?
Put Waits, Burroughs, Meow Meow and director Matthew Lutton into a mix with a sprinkling of genius from Zoe Atkinson (set and costume design), and you get a delicious taste of the extraordinary and the macabre.
Much is asked of the ‘opera’ singers and they do with it with such precision and panache. Breen and Shepherd as the lovers are excellent, hitting all the right notes (pun not intended). Breen is a standout, his descent into madness and his exit is the best I have seen on stage for a long time. Brilliant.
Actor Richard Piper has the Burroughs rhythm and is properly captivating as the father. In a role that could have been background filler, the mother, a formidable Jacqueline Dark, makes her presence felt and it isn’t just the yellow frock. Winston Hillyer as the anointed suitor holds his own as does Le Gateau Chocolat whose duet with Paul Capsis – bass and contralto – is astonishing and worth noting.
Spoiler alert! The set has hidden panels and holes where wonderful things appear and disappear – after all, it is a forest, you know…
The Victorian Opera is well known for making forays into the non-traditional and have developed a great following because of that. For their pair, Malthouse and Lutton, whose sense of the absurd and adventurous are a good match, make a great partnership with the music company.