Reviews West End & Central Published 18 June 2011

The Infernal Comedy

Barbican Hall ⋄ 17th & 18th June 2011

John Malkovich pioneers “celebrity performance”.

Daniel B. Yates

"Buy the f**king book". Photo by Olga Martschitsch.

John Malkovich is a man not only of no professed ideology, but a man who professes to having no ideology at all. When most of us consider ideology, we perhaps think of it of something that happens outside of ourselves, or through ourselves. Something we “speak” rather than actually “have”. Then again, Malkovich is not most of us. Since winning an Obie in 1984 for his role in Sam Shepard’s True West and going on to become a most distinctive Hollywood presence, Malkovich’s utterances carry the weight of celebrity intelligentsia. His infamous spats with the journalist Robert Fisk and Harold Pinter (he will be directing A Celebration of Harold Pinter at Edinburgh this year) may have revealed a staunch Neo-Con, a man who according to a fellow actor is “so right wing, you’ve got wonder whether he’s kidding”, but behind that, perhaps they spoke also of what a man with conservative instincts might court when raised to global ambassador of a certain idea of elite culture. The kind of actor who plays professors, priests, arts intellectuals, sinister men of power, God in multi-million dollar adverts.  A feted star of the quality variety.  And because of that, and because of his God-given talent, and in the way that roles and persons become conflated in stars, he seems to be one of the actors who transcends the artisanal aspect of acting.  An elliptical natural, a one-off.  Famous and a genius? You can understand why the pressure to speak – to normatively inhabit this “genius” outside of the performative – might induce this kind of talk about not-speaking. Perhaps doubly-so when you tend to treat your celebrity, in both work and interview, with marked suspicion.  You can understand why for Malkovich an “ideology” is something less participatory than it is a millstone.

Tonight Malkovich prowls the stage, at the same time imperious and unpredictable, like a feral don or slightly unhinged preacher. Waggishly, his face was once described as the first-stage of John Hurt’s make-up for The Elephant Man, and while that (unintentionally) captures some of the nobility in those flattened sculpted ovals, far from being cartoonish or ridiculous, his look is hard, sharp, rawboned. From the stalls his face conjures comparisons to a Mayan ritual mask or a Renaissance Memento Mori; a crystal skull, still glittering, a sneer for civilisation, vibrating with some occult secret. He plays John Unterweger – a character based on a true-life Austrian serial killer who was released from prison in 1989 following a campaign by the country’s intelligentsia.

Unterweger wrote publishable poetry, garned a best-selling book, and a measure of celebrity before returning to killing women and finally committing suicide. While this is familiar villainous territory for Malkovich, his screen murderers (Cyrus The Virus, Tom Ripley, Commander Pavlov) have typically mined that urbane steel which makes Malkovich such a visceral yet oddly cold presence. Here he animates a character who is very concerned about being liked. He talks haltingly in an Austrian accent. Hard plain vowels and clear Alpine sibilance. Humble when he makes missteps, yet precise as the knots he will later tie around his neck. He makes uproariously-received jokes (about the music on offer: “I don’t usually like this kind of music, it makes me nervous”, with a Woody Alllenesque shrug. About the Barbican complex: “well done for making it down to the bunker … a hell made of hallways”). He emanates a professional warmth, an authoritative plausibility.

Michael Sturminger’s opera is perhaps best described as an irregular contrivance. A pasticcio of baroque (megamixing arias by Mozart, Vivaldi, Weber, Haydn) interspersed with monologues addressed to the audience by Unterweger, which form part of the framing conceit: a book-reading (the only set to speak of is a functional table with a pile of hardbacks standing in front of the orchestra) for a memoir written, we are told, posthumously. Sturminger’s script is light enough to have these elements avoid collision. Unterweger’s silent interactions with the singing sopranos – bringing gifts, laying rose petals, laying waste to rose petals as he creates carpel carnage – weave an elegant dramatic thread, and the framing device provides a tightly-stitched seam. But while the Wiener Akademie orchestra are strongly competent, and the two sopranos (of whom Bernada Bobro is the more technically gifted, Marie Arnet the more syncopal and swooning) provide good value, these instances of high art are not particularly revealing about the “women [who] like to fuck murderers”, or the sexuality of the man that puts it thusly. Similarly the scripted passages disclose little of note about the psychology of a killer, or the discourses of redemption and culpability he skirts, or the cultural fantasy he represents (clunkers such as “can you imagine the strange feeling of supremacy, of omnipotence, of getting away with anything”, are pretty much par for the course). In fact so little of interest is said about serial killers the whole conceit becomes something of a sideshow.

Because tonight is as much about that semi-fictive thing called John Malkovich (for whom Sturminger wrote the script) as it is the semi-fictive character Johann Unterweger. Indeed, the genius of this piece lies in the famous actor’s appearance on the London stage joining with the fictional public appearance of a serial killer, in such a way that the “truth” of one becomes that of the other – something undisclosable, by which we are fascinated, which relies on its own disappearance. As Johann/John walks through the aisles, chatting gamely, meeting the eyes of as many of the audience as possible, we suck up the phlogiston of celebrity and swoon like so many consumptive heroines. As he sits amongst us in the stalls, watching the sopranos on stage, a ripple goes through the audience, as if we were on a cloud with George Clooney and a nice cuppa, appraising all that is fine in the world (strangely, if our relation to high art is confused by the actual presence of high art tonight, it is soothed by our identification with Malkovich’s control of it). Which makes John/Johann’s transformation from twinkling star to dull brute, from courtship to cutting disregard (“if you want to, you can come back tomorrow night and see if I changed my mind”), from humble jokes to the contemptuous bark which seems to come from nowhere of “BUY MY FUCKING BOOK” – as much about curdling the evening’s sycophantic laughter, breaking the warm glow of celebrity bonhomie, refusing us what we’ve paid money to see, about aggressively deconstructing John Malkovich as it is a conservative parable about the impossibility of a killer’s redemption. The disclosure of truth that Johann refuses is the disclosure of truth that John refuses, prankishly, cleverly. It is said that Hollywood stars excel at playing themselves. No one does it with so much simultaneous truth and untruth as Malkovich.

The most resonant line from tonight? “The truth… My life never has been deeply connected to this concept.” Although in some ways this couldn’t be more false.  Perhaps a better line is the one Malkovich claims is his favourite movie quote of all time, from Spike Jonze’s film; “who the fuck is John Malkovich?”


Daniel B. Yates

Educated by the state, at LSE and Goldsmiths, Daniel co-founded Exeunt in late 2010. The Guardian has characterised his work as “breaking with critical tradition” while his writing on live culture &c has appeared in TimeOut London, i-D Magazine, Vice Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives and works in London E8, and is pleasant.

The Infernal Comedy Show Info

Directed by Michael Sturminger

Written by Michael Sturminger

Cast includes John Malkovich, Bernarda Bobra, Marie Arnet




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