Jameos Del Agua, Lanzarote, July 2023
featuring actor John Malkovich
was and evening of utterly baffling brilliance
THE INFERNAL COMEDY
It was the year 2002 when Carmensa de la Hoz directed Los Aljibes de Tahíche and a national film exhibition was going to be held in the facilities of the Lanzarote centre when her phone rang and it was John Malkovich calling.
At that moment Carmensa was surprised by the call but only a few days later she was with the actor on the island, along with more companions, enjoying Lanzarote and she remembers still what their reaction was when they arrived at the Jameos del Agua for the first time. “When we walked in he said, ‘But what is this?’ He marvelled.
That day Malkovich was captivated by Lanzarote and the Jameos Auditorium .
And this week, with the arrival of the play “The Infernal Comedy”, the American actor returned to the island 20 years later to fulfil one of his dreams. “He wrote to me and told me he was finally coming´.
De la Hoz recalls some anecdote from two decades ago on his first visit from which a beautiful friendship emerged that has lasted over time.
It is clear that they will see each other again either in Lanzarote, in the USA, in London or where they join their respective commitments. Despite his huge acting experience, Malkovich was very excited to act in Lanzarote and now at 69 years old he has already realised his modest dream.
The Infernal Comedy is part of the Canarias Extension of the Veranos del Taoro Festival and is supported by a dozen or so various institutions and over 20 major sponsors listed at the web site, all noted and thanked at https://www.veranosdeltaoro.com/
My wife, Dee, and I purchased two of the last few seats shown as being still available on the ticket-vending web site at 85 euros each. We attended in a journalistic capacity rather than ´merely´ as fans, and that pejorative of merely was in some ways used provocatively by the soliloquist in his rambling and rants. So this was the renowned actor and filmmaker we are accustomed to Being John Malkovich immersing us in the life of serial killer Jack Unterweger. This serial-killer had been give a life sentence for strangling a young woman in 1974 but was later released, to a continuation of his crimes.
The performance began with opening music played live on stage by more than twenty musicians from the accompanying Orchester Wiener Akademic and sopranos Susanne Langbein and Chen Reiss.
Whilst the music and vocals were sublimely delivered at various points of the play to illuminate the incidents that the central character of Malkovich or Unterweger was describing, to amplify various academic answers he was giving to his own questions, the body count kept climbing, and the sopranos each seemed to suffer multiple deaths, with scenes of the them being seduced, as are moths to the flame, by the man they wished to understand !
Let me be honest here, and say that this was not an easy read or an easy watch. It was confusing, chaotic and sometimes downright contradictory, just as both the actor, being John Malkovich and the auto-biographer being a murderer, wanted it to be.
I have been interviewing major artists for decades now, after studying Literary Theory at The University Of Leeds as a ´mature´ student. I´m sorry, I don´t mean to interject my biographical details into a review about one man being two who are trying to sort fact from faction in each of their autobiographies. I grew up on stories put about by a young Robert Zimmerman that created the character of Bob Dylan and I have heard songs allegedly being sung by redneck racists who are actually middle of the road country musicians.
All that academia was pulled from under my feet though in this beautiful, incredible and packed to the rock-face theatre that is the underground cave at Jameos Del Agua or as Malkovich, or was it Uterweger, called it, the only s++t theatre my s++tty promotion team could get me into´. Whoever this man was on stage, pulling the strings of the orchestra and creating a song selection to tell his story led us on a not-so merry dance.
Clues to the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, were difficult to pick up, though one half of the man portraying the two men on stage did point us towards tonight´s title, The Infernal Comedy, one of them said, or maybe we were told by the producers in the programme notes, is a unique musical production featuring actor John Malkovich portraying a serial killer.
Directed by Michael Stturminger, this production combines Unterweger’s narration with music from composers such as Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Boccherini, Weber, and Gluck. This experience transitions from touches of humour to dark drama.
The adjective we are used to seeing in front of the word comedy, in this context, is Divine, which would seem a directly opposite description. The Divine Comedy was written by Dante Alighieri. more than 700 years ago and it describes one man’s journey through the afterlife, telling a timeless story about love, faith, and justice. Dante has inspired everyone from French sculptor Auguste Rodin to British draftsman William Blake.
All we learn from this comparison, however, is that seven centuries later somebody has slightly tweaked a title and written a (life) story that follows the same twisted trails. Whether that was done by Malkovich or Unterweger, we are still not sure. Never mind about that, though, for surely everyone in the theatre was wondering, as I was, whether this title was applied to the Malkovich / Unterweger collaboration before or after the completion of the (auto) biography. No, no, of course,…I´m sorry, there is no evidence that The Infernal Comedy is the result of any kind of collaboration !
Unterweger is at pains to convince us that The Infernal Comedy is the title of his autobiography, but if that is the case, what is Malkovich even doing here?
As soon as I process that thought I begin to wonder why a man a serial, killer who has avoided life-long custody, would want to set himself up for further judgement. Will he suffer for his crimes all over again or will he be subject to what Roland Barthes coined as “The Death of the Author” based on the premise that a writer dies on completion of a text. There´s more to it than that, but let´s just park that for tonight.
Having only heard of the performance a couple of days earlier, I had not been able to arrange any kind of interview. Nevertheless, things were put in perspective by our favourite waitress at Robbie and Sany´s excellent Skyline Restaurant in Playa Blanca, who had seen a notice about the play, and certain that it was something in which we´d be interested, gave us performance dates and times. At 23 years old she was aware of Malkovich and some of his film work and thought he was an artist of great stature and how proud Lanzarote should be to have been chosen as one of the two Canary Islands on which the play was to be premiered. This fast talking young lady can tie me in knots every time she speaks with me and it might have been fascinating to hear her views and her questioning of the ´meaning´ of the play.
Had I have been given the opportunity to interview the author, actor or character I would have gone along with my buddies, who are known at secondary school where I taught in the UK, as ´the five bums at the bar,´ or Messrs’ Who, What, When, Where, Why. I have always found their staccato style of interrogation to be quite revealing.
So, who is John Malkovith ?
Well there was no point in my trying to ask him from our seats in the Gods, and anyway I´d have never got a word in edgeways.
According to mini biography written by Tony Fontana, John Gavin Malkovich was born in Christopher, Illinois, to Joe Anne (Choicer), who owned a local newspaper, and Daniel Leon Malkovich, a state conservation director. His paternal grandparents were Croatian. In 1976, Malkovich joined Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, newly founded by his friend Gary Sense. After that, revival of “Death of a Salesman”, which would earn him an Emmy when it was made into a made-for-TV movie the next year. His big-screen debut would be as the blind lodger in Places in the Heart (1984), which earned him an Academy Award Nomination for best supporting actor. Other films would follow, including The Killing Fields (1984) and The Glass Menagerie (1987), but he would be well remembered as Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons (1988). Playing against Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close in a costume picture helped raise his standing in the industry. He would be cast as the psychotic political assassin in Clint Eastwood’s In the Line of Fire (1993), for which he would be nominated for both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe. In 1994, Malkovich would portray the sinister Kurtz in the made-for-TV movie Heart of Darkness (1993), taking the story to Africa as it was originally written. Malkovich has periodically returned to Chicago to both act and direct..
It would take seven years before Malkovich would show up in New York and win an Obie in Sam Shepard’s play “True West”. In 1984, Malkovich would appear with Dustin Hoffman on Broadway.
So his canon of work is solid and at times spectacular. It has never been interrupted by a fifteen year jail sentence, and neither has it been affected by bad publicity of any kind. In fact as an artist he has a reputation, perhaps, of following the road less taken, and is perhaps more credit-worthy for that.
What, I wondered, was he seeking to achieve? He was here in a text that revealed him as a misogynist, even while revelling in being a lady-killer. He was maybe hoping to sell an autobiography that was neither auto nor bio. Maybe he was looking to reveal himself as something of an intellectual pontificating on how women drag him down, and the inefficiency of the agencies who promise to make him into a star.
I even wonder if he can ever stop questioning everything and everyone around him and what does he choose to reveal to the world in his autobiography,….and what does he choose to conceal,….and why and to and from whom?
To look at him we might not suspect the fires that burn inside him. He is a pretty fit guy for his age, I guess. I would imagine he could slip through a crowd and remain pretty much un-noticed as one of the world´s greatest actors or as a quiet killer.
When Malkovich sets out on tours like this, in a production like this, does he expect success or failure? Would he settle for any point in between, and if he did would we believe him ?
Where now for a production that last night was delivered in English, a rare treat for we new residents who haven´t yet learned to speak Spanish? Simultaneously, as we heard the actor´s voice we saw, via an innovation for us, the dialogue flashing up in Spanish electronic sub-titles via an overhead contraption. I´m not sure that it in any way increased our belief in whatever we were hearing, It just all added to a-more-than-slightly-disturbing Orwellian atmosphere.
Whenever the dialogue seemed to answer any of the questions we were being led to consider, that answer simply created a hole that was too quickly filled with shovels-full of questioning. As much as we sweated the little things, who were these women this man had murdered and what was the legalistic hiccup that had led to his release, we were left asking ourselves which of these two men we should believe,….which was flipping ridiculous when this was a one man cast !
The beautiful river of music from the orchestra had rolled and flowed and slipped over a litany of sharp lies, somehow wearing and eroding them into smoothed, but slippy stepping stones.
Whenever I sat in one of these kind of literary theory debates at Uni I would feel exhausted at the end of the cut and thrust between delusion and illusion. Yet I and my fellow students would almost collapse into a sustained applause, (almost of relief) after what our lecturer had dragged us through. And it was the same here,….after almost two hours of emotion and elusion, of dreaming and scheming and screaming the entire (full-house) 600 seated audience rose wearily to their feet, almost senseless from the complexity and complicity of it all, from the sidetracks and detours we had followed all across the arts. The applause was long-sustained and carried admiration for a man who spent two hours seeking to deceive and yet who shared literary secrets with us even as he led us astray with his words.
When we all climbed out of this glorious, natural cave, turned into a theatre by a visionary artist, couples were talking excitedly about all the clever questions they would have asked had they been on that jury, (what jury? we were the jury !) whilst others were saying the questions we might have asked would have been rebuffed and the story would have just continued to evolve into art-breaking alibis, legends and lies.
As I heard one woman say to her companion that it must have all been based on a true story. I hoped she was right. It had been an autobiography for God´s sake,,,,,by somebody, about something.
Or, it had been John Malkovich messing so much with our heads that we might never again read a novel or a newspaper or a biography in quite same way as we had done until tonight.
And he´s an actor,….. so we can trust him, …. surely !
In achieving his ambition to perform here on Lanzarote he played to a sell-out audience and he made all of us think of the importance of art, of the meaning of art and the engagement of art role and of the role of theartist in society,
If this review has in any way also made you think of any of those ideas, now set your search engine to find Jack Unterweger and all then have to ber stood on its head re-considereed, again and again.