City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The Black Rider, Barbican, London

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Just returned from seeing The Black Rider at the Barbican here in London (part of the Barbican’s international theatre festival, BITE). It’s a legendary show, something I wasn’t sure I’d ever see … and it was absolutely incredible.

"In 1989 an amazing meeting of artistic minds occurred. Beat-poet legend William Burroughs, enigmatic music icon Tom Waits and ground breaking theatre director Robert Wilson came together to collaborate on The Black Rider … The Black Rider tells an updated version of a 19th century story of a clerk who makes a Faustian contract with the Devil, accepting magic bullets to win the hand of his beloved in a shooting contest. Wilson’s vivid images paid homage to German expressionism, Waits performed a shotgun marriage between Tin Pan Alley and burlesque horror music, while Burroughs’ politically acute librettos gave unique insight into the mind of a character whose actions lead to tragic consequences."

Absolutely superb cast (including Marianne Faithfull as the devil) and the music was both a faithful rendition of and a vigorous reinterpretation of Tom Waits’s original score, played with some verve by a quite brilliant band (‘The Magic Bullets’, featuring Bent Clousen, David Coulter, Terry Edwards, and Kate St. John amongst others).

From what little I know, Robert Wilson’s work can be hit and miss (for me, his exhibition design for the Isamu Noguchi show at the Design Museum a couple of years back was too showy for the subject matter), but his bold gestures were entirely in tune with this tale, which is as old as the hills (derived from ancient Germanic folklore and Faustus, it draws from Der Fresischütz (The Free-Shooter) and Gespensterbuch (The Book Of Ghosts) (1810)), and yet this mittel-European Hansel-and-Gretel weirdness is shot through with burlesque, vaudeville, and stark German expressionism – an entirely surreal confection and enjoyably unsettling. His use of colour, lighting, costume, movement, and space was quite astonishing – as with Terry Johnson’s Hitchcock Blonde last year, I was reminded of what an incredible experience live performance can deliver.

It’s on for a few more days, so go see it if you can.

The Barbican: BITE: The Black Rider


6 responses to “The Black Rider, Barbican, London”

  1. max Avatar

    hi folks – ive got to disagree with you on that one dan – i left half way through – and my companions did too
    marianne faithful has the grace of a dalek
    dont see musicals written by people on smack


  2. Ian Gregory Avatar

    I saw it last night with two friends and we all thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The theatre was about 80% full and the crowd seemed to love it. The only negative thing for me was the fact that the plot involved guns and shooting (we are exposed to way too much of that bullshit in all the gun obsessed Hollywood crap) but I didn’t let it get to me. The music was fab.


  3. Phil Gyford Avatar

    I went on Tuesday night and really enjoyed it – as did the rest of the audience (it seemed to be full). I can’t say I understood all of it… many scenes seem to have little bearing on the tiny amount of plot, but they sure do look and sound wonderful.
    The only down point for me was Marianne Faithfull, who didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the cast. Great singing of course, but her spoken lines seemed really, well, badly acted. But otherwise, fab!


  4. monica Avatar

    i loved it but i did find it close to a horror because it was the colourfullystimulating set i had ever seen the sound and music was the best i’d heard scince caberet excellent well done i love it


  5. cormac heron Avatar
    cormac heron

    I waited 11 years to see this and wasn’t disappointed. Technically it was the best piece of theatre I have ever seen (and I have already seen two other Wilson pieces). Think Frank Zappa with his fullest band and that was just the lighting! It must have taken between 3 and 6 months to plan, rig and plot the lights alone. The actors all had follow spots aimed at their heads – a very Wilson trait – and there was only a few inches give on each side but they were always fully lit. Big hand for the operators 😉
    This was theatre in it’s most symbolic sense. The whole, give the audience 10 percent and they’ll write the other ninety thing was happening here. It was a visual feast of which Antonin Artaud would have creamed himself. Wilson talks about seeing the music and hearing the visuals. Sounded like bullturd til I saw this. He is meticulous in his approach to providing visual imagery to music and vicing the versa.
    The band were amazing. about 9 of them playing everything from electric 6 string, oboe, stroh violin, trombone, banjo, didgerdoo(was quite good though), great kit – made out of bits and bobs, upright pianner & bass, saw, swannee whistle and a glass harmonica.
    Highlights of the show were the multi personality monologue of Jack Willis as Wilhelm’s Old Uncle Duke and a beautiful duet of The Briar And The Rose between Margaret O’Hara and Matt McGrath (being flown in mid air). Waits you genius bastard you. Shame that he never released the other music that is featured in the show. And what’s more, maybe the theatre band and cast should have their version of The Black Rider put out. It’s definitely in my top three Waits albums (along with about 5 others but what the hell).
    Can’t wait for Alice and/or Blood money to come to town.


  6. David Avatar

    I saw the first night of previews in May. I loved every tedious second of it. My favorite song being “Crossroads”(right before interval). I laughed so much during it but most of the time I didn’t know why. It was so unusual. Having seen “Shockheaded Peter” at the Lyric Hammersmith prior to this production I have much admiration for this dark twisted sense of humor and visual candy. I’m from the states so I am hoping I will be able to see it some where here too.


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