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Review: The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets

★★★★★

Basically, this show’s an allegory for addiction and everyone in it belongs to one of at least four 12-step fellowships (AA, NA, SLAA and Al-Anon, in case you were wondering). But what else would you expect when the libretto comes from the pen of one of the world’s most famous literary junkies, William S. Burroughs, and the score from recovered boozehound Tom Waits. It’s a personal work for other reasons too. Burroughs, who infamously (although accidentally) shot dead his wife during a light-hearted game of William Tell whilst high, has spun a tragedy ending with a shooting accident.
 
This is a fucked-up fairytale in the shape of Brothers Grimm and weaves together the story of the devil – here working mischief under the monicker Pegleg and played by cabaret legend Meow Meow – and star-crossed lovers Wilhelm and Kätchen. Kätchen’s old man would rather her betrothed to a guaranteed provider, namely a hunter, but her heart is set on brain box Wilhelm, who’s shit with a shot. Pegleg seemingly comes to the rescue with “magic bullets” that can’t stray from their target, but, of course, they come at an increasingly steep price. As the show progresses, Wilhem meets Pegleg quite literally at the crossroads before losing his dignity, soul, sanity, strides and, finally, his bride. That said, Wilhelm was cautioned from the outset that, “the devil’s bargain’s a fool’s bargain”.
 
The score is Waits to the core: it’s darkly humorous and Kätchen’s dad, played by Richard Piper, mimics the deep whiskey rumble of Waits’s voice to a tee. Stylistically, the show traverses everything from old-school cabaret courtesy of the late ‘20s Weimer Republic and gypsy jazz to spaghetti-western surf and swamp rock, chucking in a side serve of Goon Show silliness and Monty Python slapstick for good measure.
 
The Grand-Guignol staging also deserves mention. The industrial-looking white background, reminiscent of an asylum but adorned with forest friends including deer and dove, was the perfect contrast for floods of blood and lit up a psychedelic treat with acid yellow and green. Plus, making the stage into a pop-up book during parts of the fable was genius.        
 
For what’s ostensibly a musical, this is heavy stuff and a few tears were shed as the characters inexorably trudged in the direction of obvious and impending doom. It was also hard not to feel compassion for the benighted hero/addict Wilhelm: he’s not bad, he’s just sick.