Giant neon-hued pieces of furniture, 20 feet high. Angular, skew-framed doorways swathed in soft purple spotlights. Huge cardboard deer racing by on wires overhead; Life-size, rubbery masses of deer cadavers strewn below. It’s quite the surreal scene, this outrageous stage vision from playwright Robert Wilson. And—outside of classic German Expressionist films like Metropolis and Das Kabinet, with perhaps some day-glo Peter Max paintings tossed in for good acid-trip measure—rest assured, you’ve never seen anything like The Black Rider. And through this Gothic wasteland—singing songs penned by Tom Waits, speaking dialogue from the late William S. Burroughs—strolls 58-year-old rock diva Marianne Faithfull, in long black ponytailed wig, waistcoat with floor-sweeping tails, and the kind of creepy kohl-and-magenta makeup that would look great on Lily Munster. Cast by Wilson himself, Faithfull is playing—of course—the Devil, Pegleg, in this adaptation of an old German folktale in which an inept young hunter makes a Faustian bargain to make his bullets fly truer. The singer’s performance is spine-tingling—cut a deal with her, and you just know you’re in deep trouble.
Theoretically, Faithfull should be traveling the world on a press junket right now, touting her remarkable new solo set Before The Poison, which features several songs written/co-written by Nick Cave and P.J. Harvey, with one selection from old chum Damon Albarn (“The Last Song”) and one from Largo-scene legend Jon Brion (“City Of Quartz”). But after nailing her spooky role in a two-month run at London’s Barbican, she agreed to two more months as Satan in San Francisco. She first saw the play in Berlin back in ’91, she recounts over a pizza lunch at her S.F. theater-district hotel. “And for me, the main thing is really my music,” she clarifies. “But then I got this fantastic offer, and I just couldn’t turn it down. I felt I had to do it.” Through four demanding rehearsal weeks, she and Wilson “slowly built this character. And because I’m not a trained actor, they couldn’t just tell me what to do—Pegleg just had to develop. And I’m not going to tell you how I came to it—that’s all trade secrets. That’s the whole magic of the theater, very stylized and all about the spine and its movement. Bob [Wilson] talks a lot about ‘Earning the moment,’ and I don’t really know how that works. But I guess I’ve got it now—I’m actually able to do that.”
Recalling the key direction Wilson gave her, the regal-looking Faithfull can’t stifle an ironic laugh. “What he said to me was ‘Hate the audience. Hate the audience, be dangerous, and when you come onstage, don’t let people really know what you’re going to do.’ It’s an interesting way to deal with an audience, and they like it. And I’ve got my own kind of strange beauty—I know that. But what’s so interesting about this part is that it’s walking a fine line between grotesque and beautiful.” Much like Faithfull’s music itself.
The daughter of an Austrian baroness, this swinging London socialite was first discovered by Rolling Stones Svengali Andrew Loog Oldham, who provided her first Jagger/Richards-penned hit “As Tears Go By” in ’64. After flirtations with film, drugs and even Jagger himself, Faithfull disappeared for a decade, reinventing herself as a smoky-throated chanteuse on 1979’s Broken English. She continued acting, landing recent roles in Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy and C.S. Leigh’s Far From China, and actually played God in the hit U.K. TV series Absolutely Fabulous. Two years ago, an all-star cast was assembled at her side for her second comeback, Kissin Time, including Beck, Albarn, Jarvis Cocker and Billy Corgan. For Poison, she “reached out to Polly [Jean Harvey], because I’ve known her for quite a long time, and loved her work. And I’ve been wanting to work with Nick for a long time, too.”
The cabaret-punk pieces she wrote with Harvey (who played almost every instrument and also produced the five-day sessions), like “In The Factory” and the funereal title track, marked the first time Faithfull had ever worked with a woman. “And we were able to write things together that I probably wouldn’t have been able to write with a man,” declares the doyenne, who now resides in Dublin but often jetsets to Paris. “And it was Polly’s idea to record it all on analog, which is one of the reasons it sounds so good. I hadn’t organized my thoughts so clearly, but she came in and had everything together, so I really had to think on my feet.” Cave was just as studious. He often wrote in his private office, Faithfull says, “just to have a real working day. Nick would never do this, what I’m doing with The Black Rider, this blurring of work and life. Although I’m really enjoying it, I can’t wait for the play to be over, because I worry that I’m never gonna get myself back again. But the only way I can do it is by blurring the boundaries.”
Faithfull endures several costume changes in Rider, appears inside a coffin-shaped box, rises up from a trap door in the floorboards and even swings from the rafters mid-song. And although she’s waived matinees to campy co-star Nigel Richards, “This still takes up all my energy,” she sighs, preparing to head back upstairs for a well-earned nap. “But it’s a very moral play, and it’s exactly what it appears to be about—you make a bargain with the devil, it will go very wrong. And as far as we know, that’s always true.
“And it’s a strange thing—when I was in the play in London, I went to see The Prisoner Of Azkaban with my grandchildren. And I didn’t think that much of it—it really wasn’t as interesting as The Black Rider. Because [the play is] real. We really are there, with real musicians, having real feelings, singing the songs and going through a real experience. That’s much more real than Harry Potter.”