Merlyn Theatre at the Malthouse oozed the atmosphere of a Speakeasy, well past closing time, for this co-production of Victorian Opera and the Malthouse, Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets. The Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra, tuning in the pit, gradually took over from a recording, with a slow, slightly out of tune repetitive chorus sounding like a band that had enjoyed as many drinks as the club clientele.
Post-post-modern diva, Meow Meow insinuated her way onto the stage as Pegleg the devil cheated of a soul, but planning to reap another. Thus began our journey into a very strange world, a blend of operetta, rock musical and cabaret. A collaboration between sing-songwriter Tom Waits, Beat Generation writer William S. Burroughs, and avant-garde director Robert Wilson, this “musical fable” premiered in Berlin in 1990.
A first-rate directorial, design and musical team has been drawn together to create a stunning new production. Matthew Lutton (Director), Phoebe Briggs (Musical Director), Iain Grandage (Music Supervision), Zoë Atkinson (Designer) and a hugely multi-talented and fearless ensemble of singers/actors/dancers allow the audience to journey through the story of Wilhelm a clerk who loves Käthchen, a huntsman’s daughter. This story may seem familiar to opera aficionados from Weber’s 1821 opera Der Freischütz.
Wilhelm must learn to shoot if they are to marry. He is seduced by the offer of magic bullets that can never miss their mark. He accepts them, without realising that there are consequences. They are addictive – nothing is free, and bargaining with the devil never ends well.
The parallels with drug addiction are clear in the writing. Burroughs was an addict whose own story informs this parable (he accidentally shot and killed his wife during a game of William Tell), and the production takes us into the hallucinogenic world, though only sometimes is it a dark place.
Kanen Breen’s Wilhelm is outstanding – his singing is beautiful, and he uses his flexible body to great comedic and dramatic effect. His duet with Käthchen “The Briar and the Rose” is one of the musical highlights of the show. Dimity Shepherd sings superbly, and acts and moves equally as well, her very stylised Käthchen demonstrating innocence at first, and eventually lustful desire in “I’ll Shoot the Moon”, where all inhibitions shed, she achieves the most astonishing vocal orgasm.
As Käthchen’s parents Richard Piper (Bertram the Forester) is suitably authoritative and protective, and Jacqueline Dark (Anne his wife) is motherly and caring, and supportive. Their stage presence and timing, and vocal contributions, both speaking and singing, bring real depth to their characters.
Paul Capsis, Le Gateau Chocolat and Winston Hillyer all contribute musically, dramatically and with cabaret charisma, bring life to smaller characters and add further depth to the ensemble.
Meow Meow’s devilish Pegleg is a recurring presence, scheming and manipulating with every physical movement and vocal inflection. She commands the stage, and colludes with the audience at every turn.
Every word of the spoken text and the songs is clearly audible, a credit to the performers and their coaches, and to sound designer Jim Atkins and conductor Phoebe Briggs.
Tom Waits’ music is easy to listen to, derivative of a variety of music styles, such as circus tunes, Kurt Weill, vaudeville, jazz, folk, and gospel music. Scored for a chamber orchestra, ten very accomplished players use a variety of instruments, including a bowed saw, and various glass, metal and ceramic found objects. The ensemble is very tight, under Phoebe Briggs capable direction from a variety of keyboards, accompanying sympathetically, and creating the sounds for nightmares and what Waits described as “bone music”.
Zoë Atkinson’s inventive stay-put set appears simple, but false walls and trapdoors enable the most startling entries and exits, and every conceivable (and inconceivable) need for characters to be seen and unseen. Her colourful costumes, and Paul Jackson’s effective lighting also assist the audience to walk the tightrope between reality and hallucination.
Each singer-actor is prepared to take risks in making sounds that aren’t always pretty, and moving in less than usual ways, creating a wonderfully engaging experience for 110 minutes (no interval). Even on leaving the theatre and heading towards the tram stop, a soundscape featuring the bowed saw echoes across the Malthouse grounds, keeping the hallucination alive.
This production continues in October as part of the Melbourne Festival. Don’t miss it! The program is available online from Victorian Opera, and so too is a very informative education package, intended primarily for senior theatre students, but interesting for anyone less familiar with the genre.