Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 21 May, 2004

This “musical fable” is a collaboration between theatre auteur Robert Wilson, musical maverick Tom Waits, and high priest of weirdness, the late novelist William S. Burroughs: a unique team.  Since its premiere in Hamburg in 1990, a lot of people have been waiting for a chance to see it, especially when they heard that this revival would feature Marianne Faithfull playing the Devil.  Could any show meet such expectations?

Of course not: nothing could live up to such high hopes. But this remarkable evening does come damned close to it.  This is more an opera than a musical, and more still a Robert Wilson piece. Wilson paints with light, with bodies and with space to create astounding, often inexplicable images on the stage.  You have to give up hope of decoding much of what you see, and just immerse yourself in all the bizarre richness.

As with last year’s Woyzeck, the look of the piece is German Expressionist: those 1920s nightmare movies with odd lighting and skew-whiff perspectives.  It matches the story, a version of the German folk tale Der Freischütz, in which a would-be huntsman makes an ill-advised deal with the Devil for some magic bullets, and is betrayed.  Waits’ music, too, is like a series of black, blaring mutant nursery rhymes.

Faithfull – who looks and acts rather like Joel Grey as the Emcee in Cabaret – is supported by bonkers Canadian chanteuse Mary Margaret O’Hara and minor ’80s cult figure Richard Strange.  The staging feels freer than usual with Wilson, who can use his actors simply as flesh puppets. Bent Clausen and the band, too, blow up a vigorous, dirty, literally unholy storm almost non-stop.  All the ingredients are top-quality.

And yet there’s still a tiny kernel of disappointment that it’s not entirely miraculous... merely phenomenal.  The second half is rather a rag-bag: several preludes to the climactic shooting scene, followed by several codas. And the raucous arrangements can grow a tad wearing after a while.  Nevertheless, nobody with a bone of musical or theatrical adventurousness in their body will want to miss it.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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