The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer
Stage play for baroque orchestra, two sopranos and one actor written and directed by Michael Sturmijnger based on an idea by Birgit Hutter (costume designer) & Martin Haselböck (musical concept)
Don Juan – Chaconne, ‘L’enfer’
Symphony in D minor (La casa del diavolo) – Chaconne
Sposa son disprezzata – Ottone in Villa
Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio K418
Orfeo ed Euridice – Ballo grazioso
Ah! Perfido, Op.65
Berenice che fai
Ah, se Edmondo fosse l’uccisor! [insertion aria for Méhul’s Helena, 1815]Mozart
Ah, lo previdi, K272
John Malkovich (actor)
Bernarda Bobro & Marie Arnet (sopranos)
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 18 June, 2011
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
The first of currently two collaborations between the writer/director and performers (the second The Giacomo Variations in which John Malkovich plays Casanova was premièred earlier this year at the Sydney Festival, The Infernal Comedy is already out on DVD. It made its UK debut the night before at the Barbican Hall.
It’s an unusual concoction: a fictitious lecture by a real-life dead (sorry about the seemingly contradictory terms) serial killer who professes that, for once in his life (sic) he’s going to tell the truth. The criminal is Austrian Jack Unterweger who, while serving a life sentence (in Austria that’s 15 years, with a further ten years on parole) unveiled a literary talent that meant he was applauded on release, but – unbeknownst to his admirers who were petitioning for his pardon – went on to strangle another ten prostitutes with their own underwear, including three in Los Angeles, where he had been sent by an Austrian magazine to research an article about prostitution. He was eventually caught and imprisoned again in 1994, but he hanged himself on 29 June that year, tying his shoe laces and tracksuit draw cord together to fashion a rope.
Ripe for investigation as to why the Austrian authorities and Unterweger’s advocates, let alone his young girlfriend, did not twig his criminal other life, Michael Sturmijnger came up with a number of monologues to intersperse with various baroque, classical and early-romantic female arias, meant to represent the plight of the various women that Unterweger murdered.
Quite extraordinarily (and utterly coincidentally) it was exactly 21 years to the very night that I last saw Malkovich on the London stage – on 18 June 1990 I had seen him in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This at the Hampstead Theatre (which transferred later that year to the Lyric Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue). There’s no doubt that he’s a charismatic performer and (as his role in the film version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses displayed, and which he introduced at the Barbican Cinema on the afternoon before this concert) that he effortlessly encompasses the dark side.
And yet … I was left utterly cold by this throwaway performance which didn’t seem to dig anywhere under the skin of Unterweger’s character. Sturmijnger’s monologues are glib and become scatological. Rather like Terry Gilliam’s direction of The Damnation of Faust recently at English National Orchestra (but to much less dramatic effect), dreadful deeds – here the strangling of the female performers with bras – were accompanied by sublime music. With the members of Wiener Akademie seated at the rear of the Barbican Hall stage and all performers appearing from the back of the Hall, from behind a screen, the musical sound was full-bodied (the sounding boards above, hanging vertically). So no complaints there, although the entrances, exits and over-directed actions of both the sopranos detracted from the overall effect of the music per se.
It was the concept that seemed so alien. Even with surtitles, the choice of arias (and one duet) didn’t seem at all clear, and the admission of Malkovich’s character (spoken in a stilted ‘Owstrian’-English) that he didn’t really like “this type of music” and that it was his “editor’s choice” seemed to scupper the whole thing from the outset. But perhaps we should be thankful that Malkovich didn’t sing (as he does in The Giacomo Variations). I was disappointed. You can try it for yourself on DVD (Arthaus) or when it visits Birmingham on 26 May 2012.