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the black rider: acid power trip

eleanor hadley kershaw

British-born, Eleanor Hadley Kershaw is currently based in Brussels, facilitating communications with IETM - international network for contemporary performing arts/réseau international des arts du spectacle. She has a Foundation Diploma in Art, Media and Design and a BA in English from Cambridge.

Michael Scholar Jnr, Kevin Corey, The Black Rider Michael Scholar Jnr, Kevin Corey, The Black Rider
photo Ian Jackson
The ringmaster enters with a flourish of his long black coat as the houselights are still fading. Looking around at the eager faces in the auditorium, it’s clear that they’re all too keen to accept his invitation to “Harry Harper’s Bazaar” to see the three-headed baby and other assorted delights. Like the classic freak-show audience, with a taste for black humour and a desire to be frightened, we greedily gulp down the spectacle as the rest of the cast jerkily parade into line in time to the big-top trombone. They are followed up by the charismatically evil Peg Leg (Michael Scholar, Jr.) who, despite his disability, almost seems to moonwalk backwards in time to the music, slick and smooth in his black tailcoat, shiny shoes and bare chest.

We’re already sold as the performers ask us to “come along with the Black Rider”. But perhaps like our protagonist Wilhelm (Kevin Corey) who, desperate to please his girlfriend’s father and win her hand in marriage, makes a Faustian pact with devilish Peg Leg, we don’t know quite what we’re getting ourselves into.

A love story is played out in the mechanical movements of this feudal Addams Family, against the deep blue and red stripes of a minimalist backdrop. Their somehow medieval costumes are reminiscent of the German folktale from which this story is taken, whilst faces are contemporary gothic: deathly white skin, black eyes and lips. Bertram the Forester (Jon Baggaley) repeatedly expresses his dismay at his daughter Kathchen’s (Rachael Johnston) choice of boyfriend. With arms bent at the elbow moved stiffly up and down, he is like a doll being used to re-enact its owner’s latest tantrum. In a later scene (and with the clarification offered by the programme synopsis) it emerges that his reasons for objecting to Wilhelm, a clean cut city clerk, are deeply connected to his family’s history and his wish to keep up a hunting tradition. He presents his daughter with a vile, stooped hunting boy whose crude language and use of his horn’s phallic potential to illustrate the fact that he “knows women”, induces a shudder not only in Kathchen.

During these early scenes, Peg Leg occasionally appears on a small rectangular screen in one red strip of the backdrop, a perverse deity high above the action. His eerily distorted words, “do as you will”, add to a growing sense of inevitability. There’s no escaping doom in these forests. The large, tight, puppet-like movements of the characters suggest that they are merely the devil’s marionettes, acting out the story within the constraints he provides. This image is cemented later on, in a bizarre interlude in which a clown, complete with Charlie Chaplin bowler hat, enters spurting high-pitched gibberish. Frustrated with this noisy interruption, Old Uncle stands behind her, and takes control of her invisible strings: he makes her dance as they sing a duet. To me it’s unclear whether this interjection is meant to make sense or whether I’m just not listening hard enough. I have the feeling that I am immersed too deeply into a hallucinatory world that doesn’t operate on my terms. I did sign up for the ride but in doing so I handed my fate over to this motley crew. I can’t turn back now.

Silent film is referenced again at the pivotal moment when Peg Leg offers Wilhelm his magic bullets. With these the clerk is sure to hit his target and impress Kathchen’s father with his hunting skill. (Never mind that one of the bullets is bent to Peg Leg’s will.) The effortlessly cool devil teases geeky Wilhelm as he attempts to pick up an oversized white gun, pulling it away just as Wilhelm is about to grasp it. These movements are accompanied by exaggerated sound effects performed by the band stage left, who seem to laugh along with the joke. But the slapstick gains a more sinister edge once Peg Leg starts to play marionette-master with Wilhelm, singing “don’t listen to the devil, he got ways to move you”. Wilhelm is merely a toy.

Kathchen has a child-like innocence in her relationship with Wilhelm, which borders on ownership. She excitedly leaps about the stage when she discovers that there’s “dead game heaped all over the house!” thanks to Wilhelm’s shooting. At one point, previously hidden from the audience, Wilhelm’s head pops out from beneath Kathchen’s floor-length wedding skirt, then back under again. She seems to float, sitting on her lover’s shoulders. The couple are one: an image of pre-marital happiness. His masculine legs substitute hers beneath her disproportionately small torso, and they dance as she sings: “You’re so cute. I like your trousers. They’re black.” This youthful quality renders her unbearably drawn out death scene all the more poignant. The auditorium is thick with silence in the minutes after Wilhelm’s magic bullet hits her.

With the knowledge that William S. Burroughs accidentally shot his wife in a drunken reconstruction of the William Tell legend, the whole caper becomes disturbing on an entirely new level. Although the experience feels like being trapped in a Tim Burton bad acid trip, played out live in front of us instead of safely on a screen, there are very few direct references to the dangers of addiction. We are told the didactic story of Georg, who discovered that he couldn’t live without the magic bullets, reaching out for them “just like a junkie groping for his stash”. But maybe to be reminded of this gritty reality too often is to stop enjoying the fright of the ride.

November Theatre, The Black Rider, The Casting of the Magic Bullets, by Tom Waits, William S Burroughs, Robert Wilson, songs Tom Waits, text William S Burroughs, director Ron Jenkins, performers Mackenzie Gray, Michael Scholar Jnr, Jon Baggaley, Colleen Winton, Rachael Johnston, Kevin Corey, Corinne Kessel, The Devil's Rubato Band, musical director Corinne Kessel, choreographer Maria Nychka, lighting Michael Kruse, properties designer Marissa Kochanski; Arts Club Granville Island Stage, Jan 16-Feb 9; PuSh International Festival of Performing Arts, Jan 16 - Feb 3

British-born, Eleanor Hadley Kershaw is currently based in Brussels, facilitating communications with IETM - international network for contemporary performing arts/réseau international des arts du spectacle. She has a Foundation Diploma in Art, Media and Design and a BA in English from Cambridge.

RealTime issue #0 pg.

© Eleanor Hadley Kershaw; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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