fri 01/07/2022

The Infernal Comedy, Barbican Hall | reviews, news & interviews

The Infernal Comedy, Barbican Hall

The Infernal Comedy, Barbican Hall

Abhorrently offensive new John Malkovich musical drama stains the Barbican

John Malkovich's audience saw nothing wrong in lapping up the comedy of a strangler

The Barbican committed a grave sin last night. It forgot that people matter more than art. That their responsibility to the families of those who Jack Unterweger (the subject of John Malkovich's music drama, The Infernal Comedy) murdered trumps any interest in the dramatic potential of Unterweger's bizarre life. However constraining to the autonomy of creativity this may be, these are the rules of common decency.

A portrait of Ratko Mladić that did little to show the horror of his crimes and much to convey what a loveable rogue he was would be a disgrace. And so, Malkovich's new showcase at the Barbican Hall, an apologia for a woman-hating and serial-killing psychopath, is a disgrace, for which the Barbican should be ashamed.

John Malkovich is Jack Unterweger, serial Austrian prostitute-poacher and killer, fraud, literary aspirant, who published while still in jail and became a cause célèbre, with the likes of Elfriede Jelinek demanding his release. Upon his release in 1990, he became a TV celebrity, journalist and chat-show host and murderer yet again. He hanged himself in 1994, the night he was convicted.

Apart from the portion occupied by the Wiener Akademie and conductor Martin Haselböck, the stage was given over to Malkovich's Unterweger and his charm offensive, a sort of half-baked comedy routine, in which we were showered with ingratiating jokes about the Barbican and life and PCs and women. It's sickening stuff, watching him work the room, witnessing the audience fall for it - falling not for the satire that was lurking behind some of it, but for Malkovich's Unterweger himself.

Swap Unterweger for Mladić. Swap the two singers that came on to represent Unterweger's singers for Bosnian women. And would the audience have accepted the two-hour dramatisation, Mladić holding court, lacing a defense of his crimes with jokes and charm and misogyny, while his victims are occasionally given unsuitable opera arias through which to express themselves? I hope not.

There will be those who claim this was all satire. Parts of it clearly were. The concept of the dead murderer trying to flog his book, True Confessions, was a creaky satire of sorts (Brass Eye, this wasn't). As were surely his excuses - bad parenting, foster care (ho ho). But the rest? What was the rest lampooning? All those musical dramas that offensively glamorise the lives of psychopaths? There aren't any. The only thing this piece could possibly be satirising was itself. Yet the misogyny was all too well planned for it to be a send-up.

That the women had no voice of their own but instead wheeled themselves out, doll-like, Olympia-like, to deliver bleeding-chunk theatrical arias, whose words were inevitably miles away from the sentiments any rape or abuse victim would ever have, was one the most revolting pieces of misogyny I've ever seen given artistic sanction. Just as they were in the real world, Unterweger's female victims are denied their existence yet again. This time their souls are imprisoned in the words and music of the Classical arias of Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck, Haydn and Weber, none of which are in any way

about people who'd been abused or murdered. These arias are about wronged lovers, squabbling partners, love and loss. To have these domestic battles fortifying the voices and consciences of rape and murder victims was profoundly cretinous.

And with Malkovich so poorly distinguishing himself from the character he was playing (his Austrian accent was hopeless), and the audience seeing nothing wrong in lapping up the comedy of a strangler, the atmosphere became poisonous. "Yes, must have had a hard life, that Jack," you could hear them thinking. "He seems such a hoot!"

There were a few attempts to shock this amoral lot out of their chummy, guffawing complacency. Malkovich strangles one of the singers and drags her to the ground. The audience responded by chuckling, as if it was a roguishly loveable act. With this disturbing collective moral stupidity dominating the hall, one couldn't think about musical concerns. Were the Akademie good? I guess so. But shame on them and Haselböck for getting involved.

The enduring question was, how was the Barbican getting away with this? Why were the audience not disgusted at Malkovich's Unterweger as they would have been if he'd come on playing a show-handing Fred West? That was ultimately the stage director/writer Michael Sturminger's fault. The victims were put in an operatic muzzle; the violence was by and large pappified, excused or ignored; and the supposed wit and brilliance of this man Malkovich-Unterweger was brought centre stage. And as we know from the examples of Polanski and Naipaul, in the West, murder, paedophilia, misogyny are all forgiven if you find yourself considered part of an artistic elite - and Unterweger, remember, had literary gifts, so, murder-schmurder.

The one saving grace of all this jaw-dropping dubiousness is that one didn't have time to think much about Malkovich's acting and accent. This drama was not just weak; it was immoral. I wouldn't urge you not to go; I would urge you to go and to picket.

 

'I wouldn't urge you not to go; I would urge you to go and to picket'

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Comments

Take your point, but not sure why Mladic and Bosnian women are more worthy of our abhorrence than this man and his victims? Both perpetraotrs are equally repellent, surely, even if Mladic committed atrocities on a much wider scale.

This review is an apologia for the madness of a celebrity culture which allowed someone like Unterweger to get away with murder for so long. The very complicity that Malkovich's show re-enacted and critiqued. Your uptight moral outrage only shows the reviewer to understand his complicity in the degeneracy of our modern culture. The refusal to laugh is not an ethical gesture, but an act of refusal.

You missed the whole point of the production. What's more, your comments provide another example of under-informed journalism as Malkovich describes his experience within the Guardian video interview on Friday. The play doesn't celebrate Unterweger but asks what was society thinking by celebrating him after his release from prison.

I was part of the audience. I agree with the review. This was disturbing, but not in a good way, and almost certainly not in the way the writer intended.

Thanks for your review - I found it after reading the only other review this morning, in the Guardian, which made no mention of the appalling accent, unthinking glorification of violence and disturbing use of women in the production. I don't think this sort of subject should be off-limits for artists -- by all accounts London Road at the National Theatre, about the murder of a number of prostitutes in Ipswich, is incredibly well done -- but this production was a shambles, from script to stage.

Having attended both nights of this production, I feel the reviewer has clearly misunderstood any point the writer/director/actors were trying to make. Perhaps this is deliberate as he appears to have made his mind up before seeing the play and objects to the idea of the play as much as the play itself. The character of Unterweger is never portrayed sympathetically - at no point did the audience entirely forget what he had done (and the script did not condescend the audience to try and justify his actions - the fleeting reference to care homes was actually satirising the excuses meted out by perpetrators of such horrendous acts). The play centres on the arrogance and uncomfortable charm of Unterweger - he is flirting with the audience, the singers, the orchestra and then he pounces, catches us off guard, reminding us again who and what he is/was, as surely the real killer did. A man who charmed his way through Austrian and American social and academic circles, who was regarded as a celebrity, an author, an intellectual. How could he have done so without possessing some kind of allure, no matter how horrendous this is in retrospect? That is one of the uncomfortable points this play raises. The audience laughed along at the frequent dark humour of this production, but I don't recall hearing any chuckling during the strangulation scenes - the audience gasped and cringed, horrified that only seconds earlier they were being pulled in by the charming killer's stories and lies. The reviewer dismisses the Akademie and the singers which quite frankly shows a laziness in the reviewer - they deserved and received an outstanding response from the audience. The reviewer should give London audiences more credit, and not peddle such reactionary requests as picketing the play as both shows were sold out and the performers received enthusiastic and repeated ovations.

I never went, so do`t know if it was "good" or not! I do find though that Malkovich has got your kind nicely figured out. You think it more of a crime to "glamourise" what the murdered did in a play, than to allow a charming luvvie of the Austrian coffee house set out to kill repeatedly in the first place. You therefore of guilty of what you accuse the Barbican of being. You have put art before people. Those families you seem to hold a hankie for would NOT have lost their daughters, had the luvvies not been allowed any view in whether the man was a danger still or not. You are just embarrassed that you would have been one of the useless idiots to want him released...and for Malkovich to rub your faces in the faeces is the real crime here in your book. Not the fact that this play would not have been written if a few Malkovich types can warn us about the likes of you. Hence your apoplexy!

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