Sydney’s annual January arts splurge has begun, and as always I approached it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. By and large my memories of last year’s festival are not happy ones. Sydney Festival 2004 was justified by the incredible Heiner Goebbels’s Hashirigaki, an abstract theatrical wonder, but it was marred by too many disastrous pieces like Meg Stuart’s Alibi, a so-called dance performance which caused mass audience walkouts, and Tulp, an overfunded home video with baroque soundtrack masquerading as avant-garde multimedia.

Fortunately this year’s festival big gun, Robert Wilson, understands that theatrical communication is much more a technical skill than a brazenly unleashed idea. And last week’s premiere of Wilson’s directorial tour-de-force, Black Rider, was an inspiring start to the 2005 Festival.

For a performance piece of any kind to take artistic risks, its directorial, design and performance skills have to be honed to perfection. To create a resonant effect on its audience, whether this be disturbing or comforting, theatre must communicate, not just invade or overwhelm. Mere shock or special effects dissipate in a flash.

Wilson’s Black Rider is funny, romantic, entrancing, disturbing, bawdy and dark, but the truly startling thing about it is: there is really nothing tricky about it at all. The theatrical vocabulary -“ drawn from cabaret, German expressionism, vaudeville and modernist literature -“ is nothing that an experienced theatregoer wouldn’t have experienced in progressive performance spaces around Sydney.

What sets Black Rider apart is the perfect choreography of elements and the exquisite skill of all its performers. The tale is based on a simple German fable about a Faustian pact with the devil. William Burroughs translates the story through a prism of darkly comic surrealism into a set of texts that focus on his trademark themes of violence, addiction, writing and the politics of power. The songs by Tom Waits take their cues from the cabaret/expressionist/vaudeville tradition but they are distinctly contemporary combining an acute psychological self-awareness with a wistful romanticism. It’s a brilliant and mesmerising collage.

The show initially attracted Australian media attention when it was billed to star Marianne Faithfull and then more attention when Faithfull unexpectedly had to withdraw. But the reality is, Faithfull’s appearance or non-appearance is completely irrelevant to the success of this production. Black Rider succeeds spectacularly as an ensemble piece, a beautiful lithe construction that unfolds gracefully and finally presents as so much more than the sum of its parts.

Wilson also presented an overview of his career and theatrical philosophy in an amazing two-hour Sydney Festival lecture, more akin to a one-man show than a traditional artist’s talk. What became quickly apparent was Wilson’s uncanny ability with the simplest of means -“ a few straightforward movements on a bare stage, the intonation of his voice -“ to recreate a series of vignettes from his theatrical oeuvre.

Wilson talked of the mathematical precision with which he mapped his seemingly chaotic work, he talked about the necessity of teaching actors how to simply stand on stage, he talked about the primary importance of the visual book -“ the exact map of movements, the design and lighting -“ to the realisation of his performances. He talked intriguingly about how his theatrical language had been influenced by encounters with deaf and autistic children. These encounters challenged him to go beyond the literary language of theatre, to explore rhythms that were spatial as well as verbal.

Wilson said that the reason he works is to ask: What is it? But there are no simple answers in Wilson’s work; the question hums, it loops and repeats, creating a beat that is mesmerising and self-sustaining.

Black Rider has set the bar high for this year’s Festival performances, let’s hope the other artists startle us with their high jumps.

Black Rider continues at Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay until 22 January 2005. Phone bookings through Ticketek, 9266 4890 or online at

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