The Infernal Comedy

Birmingham Symphony Hall


IN Dante's Divine Comedy all who enter the gates of hell are told to abandon all hope and there is an element of this sense of damnation without redemption in Michael Sturminger's play.

Based on the true story of Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger, The Infernal Comedy takes us into the mind of someone who is on the road to hell.

While the tale is very modern, Sturminger is influenced by popular legends of characters dragged down into the depths with nods towards the classic tales of Don Giovanni, Faust and Orpheus and Eurydice throughout the story.

And we are all beguiled by that story as Unterweger, played by an utterly compelling John Malkovich, is at pains to point out.

The 100-minute monologue takes the form of a book tour as Unterweger prepares to share his life with the audience in the aim of shifting a few more copies of his autobiography.

Dressed in a suave white suit and sunglasses, he immediately sets about charming us with a blend of humour, gentle sarcasm and a hint of self-deprecation.

But as the tale unfolds, we quickly see beyond this sheen to a man who is utterly evil. As the truth is slowly revealed Unterweger's charade disintegrates. He begins to lose his cool, his language tips into obscenity, he rants and raves, he descends into hideous violence.

And yet he is constantly pulling back, returning to chat to the audience, raising an eyebrow at his own performance, sharing the occasional secret with us. But how much can we trust this man? He has warned us at the very beginning that he has never written a word of truth so why would he be honest now?

John Malkovich charming his audience with deadly intent.

Picture: Nathalie Bauer

And, indeed, as fact and fiction begin to blur we realise that we are totally dependent on Unterweger to tell the story in any way he pleases, tricking and deceiving us as much as he tricked and deceived those who wanted to believe in him while he lived.

 Sturminger's drama is both intense and densely written with layers of truth and untruth which would give A-level students and book groups plenty of material for debate. With the real life Unterweger committing suicide after being found guilty of killing a string of prostitutes in Europe and America, the intermingling of fact and fiction becomes even more complex.

The production interlinks classical music and words in an innovative and imaginative way so that the music adds richness to the text rather than being a distraction. Conducted by Martin Haselbock, the Orchester Wiener Akademie sets the tone with Gluck's Hell from Don Juan.

Sopranos Louise Fribo and Marie Arnet then take on the roles of Unterweger's mother, lover and victims while also delivering some stunning arias from a range of composers including Beethoven, Weber, Mozart and Vivaldi.

In many ways this is a brave piece. It touches on a subject which few will find pleasant, has a lead character who is utterly repugnant and yet strangely alluring, and plays around with dramatic form.

And it raises some disturbing questions. Why are we obsessed with serial killers? Who are the people who would attend a book launch by a dead murderer? Why do we need to hear it for ourselves? In an age when celebrity does not necessarily depend upon virtue, and in fact is very often achieved by the opposite, why do figures like Unterweger, the Moors Murderers, Ian Huntley and so on hold such a fascination for us?

Malkovich is the perfect actor for the part of Unterweger blending charm and charisma with calculation and a chilling disregard for the hopes, dreams and lives of others. It is a difficult role but one he carries off  incredibly convincingly.

Diane Parkes 

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