The Black Rider, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

As I sat through The Black Rider, I pondered alternative titles. Lost in Translation was the one I settled on.

As I sat through The Black Rider, I pondered alternative titles. Lost in Translation was the one I settled on. This piece of theatre with music, or music with theatre, or choreography with story - depending which discipline you approach it from - centres on an old German tale that can be traced back to the Thirty Years War and beyond, and was published under various names before Carl Maria von Weber adapted it for his operatic masterpiece Der Freischütz. The story is forced through the distorting lenses of various subsequent artistic and theatrical movements - including German Expressionism, Fifties American kitsch, circus-as-metaphor, pantomime and Alban Berg - and delivered as an instructive tale for our culture-lite age.

As a folk tale, it carries resonances that earlier interpreters - including Weber - were content to allow their audience to identify and digest. This version - text by William Burroughs, music by Tom Waits, conception and design by Robert Wilson of Philip Glass fame - is fighting a rearguard action before it has even properly begun. Wilson and co seem to have made a basic assumption of utter ignorance on the part of his audience, because not only is the entire plot revealed, bit by bit, before it happens, but all the moral, ethical and humanistic lessons are rammed down our throats by Jack Willis, who not only has a role in the drama, but is also the Vincent Price-like master of ceremonies throughout and introduces the cast at the beginning as in a circus troupe à la Berg's Lulu.

Perhaps Wilson presumes that a contemporary audience (the piece was premiered in the US in 1990) simply wouldn't have a clue about Faust, the devil or any other Eurocentric folk myth he is ultilising. Or maybe he really feels his audiences are too thick to work out a story and its layers of meaning for themselves. Either conclusion is depressing.

More depressing is the mediocre music that Waits has cobbled together for the production, mostly a pastiche of other things (most regularly Twenties German cabaret music, show tune music and American teen-angst ballads of the late-Fifties), which I guess is supposed to be taken ironically. This reaches a peak of absurdity in the Wolf's Glen scene, where the chilling finality of the devil's bargain is thrown away in the pursuit of cheap witticisms.

Amid all this banality there is scarcely a character or action that engages our sympathy or interest, despite the elaborate colour schemes and movement, and the best efforts ofthe poor actors, who work very hard to make it all mean something (as does the excellent musical ensemble in the pit). Chief among them is Nigel Richards, principally playing Georg Schmid, who is led astray by the devil in pursuit of ultimate happiness. His sense of stillness, wonderfully precise movements and sheer dignity, plus the unexpected coherence and brilliance of the fatal wedding scene, almost saves this from damnation.

But not quite. The devil (even in the shape of an obviously miscast Mari-anne Faithfull, who, as Pegleg, struggles unsuccessfully all evening to find the right tone for her role) must have his due - as the onstage commentators never tire of telling us.

To 12 June (0845 120 7518)