The Infernal Comedy

Barbican Hall, 17 June 2011

It is difficult to imagine the path that led John Malkovitch to decide that one of  his rare forays into the theatre would involve producing a piece based on the true life story of the notorious Austrian serial killer, Jack Unterweger. If that is hard to picture then staging it is a darkly comedic one-man show, with a dead Unterweger recounting his life story alongside a string orchestra and two opera singers tackling selected arias from the likes of Mozart, Vivaldi and Haydn, must seem totally unfathomable.

To say that The Infernal Comedy is an original piece of work is something of an understatement. Sticking faithfully to the traditional adage of truth being stranger than fiction, the story of Unterweger is fascinating. Originally sentenced to 25 years for murder Unterweger became a cause celebre among liberal Austrian intellectuals, who held him up as a model for the powers of rehabilitation on the basis of his poetry and short stories.

In 1990 Unterweger was released; soon becoming a national celebrity and writing articles about the conditions of Austrian sex workers. However, within a year of his release he had killed six more prostitutes and, even more audaciously, murdered three more in California after being invited to America. Eventually caught, Unterweger hung himself in prison after again being found guilty of murder.

That this story works as a play is testimony to the virtuoso performance at its centre from Malkovitch. In cinema he has become the by-word for a certain type of ‘acting’. And whether you love or hate him there is denying that he is one of the few actors around today who envelops the screen whenever in shot. It is this magnetism that propels the play forward.

There are very few actors who you would trust to deliver a one-man show, even fewer to successfully do so on a stage as large as the Barbican Concert Hall. However Malkovitch exudes confidence and charisma; at one point he descends into the audience and you can hear a collective shuffling of seats as people lean forward in order to get a better look.

And it is clear when Malkovitch acts, he really acts. Every guttural note of the Austrian accent feels pitch-perfect, every strain to find the right word in English seems just right. He has charm and a certain leonine grace as he prowls across the stage narrating his life story. There are times when he delves into the classical actors handbook and uses one of Olivier’s old tricks; of talking to one person whilst seemingly addressing the whole audience.

The play does not shy from the horror of the story; there is a truly brutal strangulation scene that puts must on-stage deaths to shame. The audience is left in no doubt of Unterweger’s character but in revealing this, it creates an unpleasant dissonance in the viewer. This is because Malkovitch remains as charming, as clever and polite as always. It seems we are not watching a serial killer but an academic or a faded theatre star hawking his memoirs. The clichéd obsessions that we have learnt to watch out for from the serial killer genre never seem to materialise as expected.

This dissonance reveals the subtle conceit operating at the heart of the production. Whilst watching Malkovitch it is easy to forget that you are witnessing the portrayal of a real-life serial killer. It is only the sudden moments of brutality that the audience remembers they have been laughing and joking with a sociopath and not Malkovitch. This is how we see the Austrian intelligentsia reflected in ourselves; reading the background material it is hard to believe that these otherwise intelligent individuals were so completely fooled by this man. Yet it happened and soon he was elevated to a position of national celebrity and gaining a rising profile in the United States, whilst still committing horrific murders.

The play it turns out is not so much about Unterweger but more about turning a mirror on the audience. As we tell ourselves that ‘it is Austria and they do have a habit of this kind of thing’ we are made to feel uncomfortably aware of just how easy it is to fall into the trap of forgiving someone their sins because they seem to have an easy-going personality.

It is not a great production, at times the arias are too long and dissipate too much of the tension. As good as Malkovitich is in the role, it is a little too one-dimensional. The addition of the orchestra is a nice touch but do not have quite enough variety to round out the piece as a fully coherent work. That being said, given how rarely Malkovitch is seen on a London stage, it is nice to be reminded of his undoubted talent as an actor and his almost peerless ability to hold the audience in the palm of his hand even when only furnished with a string orchestra and a couple of sopranos for company.

For a very alternative take on The Infernal Comedy, check out this review by The Arts Desk

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