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June 20, 2011 5:46 pm

The Infernal Comedy, Barbican, London

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 John Malkovich in the lead role

Here was an odd event. Why tell the true story of 1990s Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger to an accompaniment of formal arias by composers such as Vivaldi and Mozart? It was like going to the cinema and finding that the soundtrack to Silence of the Lambs had been replaced by bucolic country dances or romantic duets.

The draw of the evening was Hollywood actor John Malkovich, who in effect gave a one-man show. Seated at a table (the only prop) or wandering among the audience, Malkovich impersonated the charismatic murderer, while two singers and an orchestra hung about waiting to break into song.

The story of Unterweger is one worth telling. Imprisoned for murder, he spent 15 years in jail honing his talent for self-publicity, so that by the time he was released on parole he had become a national celebrity in Austria and was even invited to the US as an expert commentator on crime.

Unfortunately, Unterweger was leading a double life. Through this period he killed nine more women and was finally sent back to prison, where he took his own life.

How to get inside the man’s head? Malkovich’s informal, chatty way with the audience immediately set up a rapport and one understood why people had fallen for the man’s magnetism.

Attraction and revulsion were two equal forces here: a palpable chill would go down the spine as he joked how women love a murderer and then fixed his eyes on a woman close by. As each layer of the personality was stripped away, Malkovich’s performance became ever more disturbing.

But what did the music add? Next to the penetrating modern psychology of Michael Sturminger’s text the selected extracts sounded impossibly formal and hidebound. Pieces such as Haydn’s “Berenice, che fai?” and even Mozart’s ineffably beautiful “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!”, with their generic heroines singing about simple love or betrayal, have little to tell us about a unique personality as monstrously conflicted as Unterweger.

Nor were the musical performances by sopranos Bernarda Bobro and Marie Arnet and the Wiener Akademie under Martin Haselböck especially impressive. This was a compelling story where we wanted to find the truth. All the music gave us was false connections. 

 

The Barbican

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