A table, a bottle of water, a glass and a stack of printed books with his face on the cover. John Malkovich does not need anything else to crowd Madrid’s Plaza de Conde Duque for two nights in a row, where he represents Thursday and Friday The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer. The actor had promised that the first performance would not be the same as the next, “because the theater changes every night, it is lived, it is ephemeral.” And of course that’s how Thursday evening felt. The problem is that Malkovich is not made to satisfy short and fleeting pleasures.
The work, which the American has been performing since 2008, intersperses the monologue of a prostitute killer, with an orchestra of 26 members and two sopranos who sing classical pieces and in turn interpret the prostitutes. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the musical numbers take up most of a 105-minute show, but for some reason they seem to detract from the actor. He has nothing to do with the fantastic twenty musicians under the command of the acclaimed Martin Haselbock, much less with the two singers. Not even John Malkovich can perform while he’s holding a six-minute vibrato like they do.
Perhaps the fault is the expectation. Rarely do you have the privilege of seeing someone live who has acted in a hundred films. An icon, far enough away to idealize it and close enough to make his face unmistakable. John Malkovich was the true claimant of the cultural program Veranos de la Villa in Madrid, and it is not surprising that people are left wanting more. On the contrary, for him, the music is the true mastery of the work: “You can’t face it head-on, you have to surrender to it and let it overwhelm you,” he said at the press conference prior to the premiere. But few things are capable of overwhelming a stage animal like Malkovich.
It is neither good nor bad to play villains. Most of the world’s dramaturgy is based on them
Dressed in white pants, loafers and socks, and a gray satin shirt with an impossible print, the actor plays a decadent divo. A whoremonger with the pretense of a poet who justifies his atrocities through mother-child traumas and failed relationships with women, whom he angrily kills, raping them with tree branches and suffocating them with his own bra. The coherent thing would be to leave the theater hating the character and with a slight animosity towards the one who gets into his skin. But the second does not happen. As Michael Struminger, the play’s director, explains, “When it’s John who plays Jack, we definitely expect the unexpected.”
Some scared of the theater
Although his face is everywhere, as in that fantastic rarity from 1999 entitled How to be John Malkovich, the person who gets on stage is not him. It is Jack Unterweger, a convict and renowned poet who was the author of the murder of more than a dozen prostitutes in Vienna, Graz, Prague and Los Angeles. The way of speaking, in perfect English but with a strange Viennese accent, the walk of dandy misogynist and the flashes of violence rip us out of the fantasy of seeing John Malkovich. It is pure interpretation. In this case, of a despicable being like so many others who inhabit his filmography.
“I don’t think it’s good or bad to play villains. Most of the world’s dramaturgy is based on them, and perhaps they are not so bad, but they have made bad decisions ”, Malkovich defended, without referring to Unterweger. And although he acknowledges that there is no way to defend the guy, he also claims to have generated a “brotherhood” with the character, not a symbiosis. After all, he’s been playing it for 14 years.
Thanks to that, and although everyone present knows his ilk from reading the synopsis, laughter floods the stalls during the monologue part. Malkovich, or rather Unterweger, walks around the seats launching macho diatribes and joking about the fact of having murdered several prostitutes without his cynicism becoming uncomfortable, even if there are those who think otherwise and leave the room in the middle of the show. “It is always positive that someone is offended by what you do,” warned the actor a couple of days before, as if he foresaw the reaction in advance.
“When a serial killer takes the stage to publicly read his autobiography, we are not in for a comedy,” director and script writer Michael Struminger said at the press conference. He also acknowledged that he had made “easy jokes” at the beginning to get to the truly complex: the representation of violence against prostitutes and the search for the truth. While the former might have been off-putting, morbid, and misogynistic, The Infernal Comedy He solves it very well through the operatic moments and his sopranos.
The deceived, abused and betrayed women in Unterweger’s life are the protagonists of the six arias. From Vivaldi –“I am an accursed wife, insulted, although faithful”– to Mozart –“fate condemns me to tears and silence”–, through Beethoven’s wrath –“ah, perfidious, libertine, trickster, wherever you go you will know my revenge”–, Haydn’s madness and Carl Maria von Weber’s suspicion: “Could Edmund be the murderer? How terrible to think that cruelty had overcome innocence, that he could be the barbaric criminal!
During the musical numbers, John Malkovich annoys the sopranos, disappears from the scene or walks around looking at the ground with a macabre and disturbing gesture. Paradoxically, he is never enough of the disgusting being he plays. Towards the end of the play, director and actor engage in a debate about the search for truth through a dramatic reading of Jack Unterweger’s Wikipedia page. The murderer was sentenced to life in prison in 1994 and a day later he hanged himself in his cell. “I don’t approve or disapprove of my characters, they’re just work,” Malkovich recalled. And this one, in particular, has come out round.