THE BLACK RIDER: The Casting of the Magic Bullets

The Gym, The Arts Centre, Worcester Boulevard, Christchurch

21/04/2017 - 06/05/2017

Production Details

Trailblazing Christchurch-based theatre company Free Theatre is developing an exciting new production of The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets, as part of a special year of music-theatre projects.

Come on along with the Black Rider for a musical carnival ride where a lover sells his soul for magic bullets. Directed by Peter Falkenberg and featuring Arts Foundation laureate Delaney Davidson, this is a New Zealand première of a work originally conceived by collaborators Tom Waits (music), William S. Burroughs (text) and Robert Wilson (direction). It is based on the German romantic opera Der Freischutz by Carl Maria von Weber.

Falkenberg says, “It is an exciting vehicle to explore and bring together popular music and avant-garde theatre in an unusual and highly entertaining way.” With popular and successful recent productions in Barcelona, Berlin, Norway and Denmark, Falkenberg says the intention is to create a distinctively New Zealand take on the work.

Davidson was excited to be invited to collaborate on the project: “The Black Rider is gonna be a killer show. It will blur the boundaries between music, theatre and film, and blend German expressionism style with dark Cabaret carnival music.” With a set design by Stuart Lloyd-Harris, planning for the project is well underway for a limited two-week season (April 21-May 6) at the Free Theatre’s base, The Gym, in the Christchurch Arts Centre.

The Gym, The Arts Centre, Worcester Boulevard, Christchurch
Friday 21 April – Saturday 6 May 2017
(No show Sun, Mon, Tue)
Full Wage: $40. Early Bird Concession: $25.
Group Discounts available.
Online Bookings Essential.

Through Free Theatre’s New Works and Education Programme, The Gym has developed a reputation for exciting, cutting-edge contemporary performance with a diversity of innovative productions: Kafka’s Amerika, Footprints/Tapuwae, The Mauricio Kagel Project and Frankenstein.

Arts Centre Chief Executive André Lovatt welcomes Free Theatre’s ability to continuously innovate and draw people to the site. He says, “Each year, they’re developing new exciting and daring work based around the collaboration of exceptional artists. Free Theatre produces the kind of unique experiences we want to promote in the new Arts Centre.”

Actor/producer George Parker says, “We’re stoked about the calibre of artists that are collaborating with us this year. We’re deliberately mixing up ideas of what is considered high art and the popular to create new work for new audiences in the new city. For that you need artists prepared to take genuine risks as was the case with the original collaborators of The Black Rider.”

As part of the programme, the company will also present a fresh run of popular Ubu Nights, which combine performance, music, film and hospitality around different themes. This begin with a series of special Ubu Nights in February and March as a warm-up to The Black Rider with inspiration from Goethe, Marlowe, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Diamanda Galas, Delaney Davidson and Franz Schubert. Parker says another major music-theatre project for the company is Ars Acustica, a continuing collaboration with Chinese composer Gao Ping and New Zealand conductor Hamish McKeich. Presented in September, Ars Acustica will feature performers from the Chengdu Sichuan Opera Institute who will also take part in a special one-off concert of Sichuan music in the Arts Centre. 

Through these and other projects, Free Theatre will continue to collaborate with The Auricle and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra. During the year, the company will also be developing its How Not To be Hamlet? project, incorporating the work of erstwhile Free Theatre member and musician Roy Montgomery and his collaboration with current ensemble stalwart Emma Johnston.

Free Theatre’s research arm, Te Puna Toi, will again be active during the year, including: workshops and artist talks relating to these music-theatre projects; publishing of papers presented on Free Theatre at the Australasian Association for Theatre, Drama and Performance Studies at AUT, Auckland in June; the launch of a new book Acting and its Refusal by Free Theatre ensemble member Dr Marian McCurdy in July; and a special event to mark the release of a documentary on Free Theatre by New Zealand filmmaker Shirley Horrocks.

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Relevant and absorbing

Review by Tony Ryan 22nd Apr 2017

This is a great night of theatre. Stunning performances, superb direction, and a fascinating, original and adventurous theatrical work. I need to say that at the outset because the layers of thoughts, associations and impressions which follow might otherwise obscure that overriding judgement.

Free Theatre specialises in avant-garde and experimental productions and is now in its thirty-eighth year under the artistic direction of its founder, Peter Falkenberg. Compared to mainstream theatre, The Black Rider certainly fits the ‘experimental’ description, although it was first staged in 1990 (Hamburg) and has enjoyed considerable success, and won many awards, in North America, the UK and Australia, in English language productions primarily by Michael Scholar and the piece’s original creator, Robert Wilson. I’m reluctant to call The Black Rider a play or a musical because those labels might imply a particular theatrical genre, whereas the piece deliberately sets out to blur the boundaries.

Based on a German folk-tale, Der Freischütz, The Black Rider also acknowledges the story’s 1821 operatic adaption by Carl Maria von Weber. This production takes that acknowledgement a step further by including a performance of an aria from the opera, ‘Und ob die Wolke’, at the appropriate point in the plot; more of that later.

But it is the music and its performance that brings the positive impact of this production right from the start. Tom Waits’ opening sequence of songs, for all its folksy simplicity, is a sheer delight. The title song, followed by November immediately establishes the admirable musical talents, not only of the onstage cast but especially of the four instrumentalists who support the show.

“Support” is almost the wrong word for a band that sets the tone for the entire performance. With versatility, imagination, resourcefulness and subtlety or fiery drama as required, led by Hamish Oliver, they accompany the songs, sprechgesang, dialogue, mimes and ‘knee-plays’ (Wilson’s term for the occasional interludes between the scenes where he suggests alternative perspectives to the main text).

A particular musical highlight is ‘Gospel Train’. This is sung (Delaney Davidson), played and staged with such wit, expressive projection and imagination that it totally outshines the 1990 Austrian TV performance available on YouTube. I had also wondered how Weber’s famous ‘Wolf Glen’ scene, which Gustave Kobbé described as “the most expressive rendering of the gruesome that is to be found in a musical score,” could possibly be replaced by anything as effective. However, in the context of The Black Rider, this staging of ‘Gospel Train’ matches it brilliantly.

Delaney Davidson, a guest performer with Free Theatre, establishes his credentials as both a musician and an actor right from his first entrance in ‘Just the Right Bullets’, where he accompanies himself on banjo. He also contributes to the musical direction and instrumental performances of the show. Both his singing and his insidiously insinuating spoken delivery as Pegleg, the devil, are major assets to the production.

But this is very much an ensemble performance with all six members of the onstage company contributing strengths that make this potentially very challenging piece (for the audience) meaningful, entertaining and consistently engaging. More than that, director Peter Falkenberg has drawn on the talents and strengths of his cast in ways that make their respective characters believable, individual and freshly imagined. One exceptionally effective example was the introduction of an element of Maori spiritual belief/culture/tradition from Aaron Hapuku as Wilhelm, when he calls on the supernatural (Pegleg) to provide him with another magic bullet.

Another very effective use of a particular cast-member’s talents is Emma Johnston’s performance of Agathe’s (Käthchen in this adaption of the story) prayerful aria from Weber’s Der Freischütz. The operatic quality of her voice has already been evident earlier, but here she demonstrates full mastery of the style and vocal qualities that such an aria demands. And the faster-than-usual tempo, along with the clever adaption of Weber’s original orchestration, enables this insertion to fit seamlessly into the character of the production. Johnston shows she is also an ideal performer of Waits’ original songs. Her singing of ‘I’ll Shoot the Moon’, another highlight, is, once again, notably superior to other versions available online.

In fact, I generally prefer the more ‘musical’ way the whole cast handles the songs, even compared to Tom Waits’ own versions. Others may find Waits’ other-worldly approximation of notes, and his grainy voice (which critic Daniel Durchholz described as sounding like “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”) characterful, individual and original, but I doubt Waits himself would be anything but delighted with the interpretations by this Christchurch cast.

George Parker’s drolly characterised Bertram, Greta Bond’s anguished and sympathetic Anne, and Marian McCurdy’s overtly expressionist and distorted Robert-the-hunting-boy all contribute valuably and distinctly to the ensemble nature of the production. 

Mention of expressionism reminds me that, despite its experimental impression, The Black Rider brings many familiar influences to mind. Chief among these are suggestions of Kurt Weill’s earlier theatre works, particularly Mahagonny and The Seven Deadly Sins. I’ve already mentioned the acknowledgement of Weber’s opera, but The Black Rider’s rather Faustian storyline is also directly referenced, at least in this production, by a depiction of ‘Mephistopheles’ Night Ride’ from Goethe’s epic drama. I also wonder if the musical and textual mentions of “Crossroads” are references to the 1986 movie Crossroads in which blues musician Robert Johnson sells his soul to the devil in return for a new hit song. And is an Ophelian reference intended by the lute-song Käthchen sings as she dons her bridal dress and expresses her doubts regarding the certainty of her marriage to Wilhelm?

I’ve read varying reviews of the experimental and expressionist nature of The Black Rider as a piece of theatre but, in this production, no such doubts emerge. Peter Falkenberg has adapted the piece very effectively, making it relevant and absorbing for its unbroken two-hour duration. How lucky we are in Christchurch to have such a depth and variety of theatrical talent and opportunities.  


Erin Harrington April 22nd, 2017

A wonderful, informative review that really enriches the viewing experience. Thanks Tony!

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