In 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit strung a thoroughly-unauthorised tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center – then performed a death-defying 45-minute aerial routine, high above the shocked commuters of Manhattan. Far from being prosecuted, Petit was widely praised, and this intriguing theatrical gig from electronic musicians Club Gewalt further celebrates his legacy. With keyboards, guitars, drums and (most importantly) their voices, the eight-member band tells a compelling story in a genuinely memorable style.
The cavernous stage at Melkweg Theatre offers the space and freedom Petit’s story demands, and Club Gewalt further build the atmosphere with a stark, elegant, appropriately structural set. Dominated by plain white cubes, some the height of a person, their performance space beautifully echoes a city skyline. Cast in shadow on the expansive backdrop, even their microphone stands resemble cranes.
Man On Wire’s premise is a simple one: to persuade us all to follow an impossible dream, embracing the risks and terrors the world throws our way. In one scene, Club Gewalt outlines a powerful manifesto for personal fulfilment, set to the catchy sound of an uplifting electronic heartbeat. But later, there’s a genuine chill as they endlessly repeat the lyric “this is probably the end of my life” – especially since we all know what happened at the same spot, 27 years after Petit walked the high-wire there.
This mix of moods is masterfully delivered, despite the straightforwardness of Club Gewalt’s approach. Diffidently, they introduce each song by name, and occasionally even pre-announce its themes. But this apparent naivety belies an intricate, complex performance, where every note and every image seems both carefully designed and exquisitely placed. On occasion, admittedly, their high-concept musical art carries a hint of self-parody… but whether that’s intentional or not, it only added to the enjoyment for me.
I’d have liked to hear more of the back-story – we don’t learn much about Philippe Petit which you can’t find in his first paragraph on Wikipedia – and the crux number Walking, though impressively choreographed, didn’t deliver quite the emotional punch I was looking for. The lyrics, too, are occasionally a little pedestrian, at least in contrast to the epic tone of the music.
But ultimately Man On Wire relies on performance more than on story, and the performance itself is almost impossible to fault. Above all, the production embodies its central appeal: to view the world as one big invitation, an opportunity to experience life beyond the norm. So if you wouldn’t usually embrace this style of electronic musical theatre… well, you know what you ought to do.