The time: now, today (literally – the date was explicitly referred to during the performance).

The place: the United People’s Republic of Circassia, a fictional state that one imagines might be situated somewhere in North Africa or perhaps the Middle East. More specifically, in a delightfully meta twist that transformed one’s perception of Symphony Hall, within the hitherto unknown subterranean concert hall of Satur Diman Cha, officially known as Circassia’s Head of State and General of the Armies, known by everyone else simply as a dictator.

John Malkovich © Paul Sturminger
John Malkovich
© Paul Sturminger

This is the setting for John Malkovich’s new music-theatre work Just Call me God: a Dictator’s Final Speech, which following performances in Hamburg was receiving its UK première in Birmingham. At least, ‘music-theatre’ is how it was described in the programme, yet the emphasis of the piece is very much more on the theatrical than the musical (to the audible disgruntlement of some audience members). It is, essentially, a play, wherein Allied forces are seeking to swoop upon Diman Cha’s residence and execute – literally – a Bin Laden-like capture-cum-assassination. Taken by surprise, the soldiers are swiftly dispatched by the hitherto hidden dictator, though two figures miraculously survive: the army chaplain, ‘Rev’, and a journalist, Caroline (Sophie von Kessel). What plays out, as many more Allied forces draw inexorably closer, is the last ninety minutes of Satur Diman Cha’s existence, during which he manifests every conceivable facet not simply of who he is, but as he believes the world should see him.

But it’s more than just a play. Rev is revealed to be an accomplished musician (played by organist Martin Haselböck), and he immediately becomes Diman Cha’s performing monkey, duck taped to the organ bench and ordered to play on command. From another perspective, then, Just Call Me God speaks as a kind of concerto for two actors and organ. As the narrative charts a complex path that leads to the video recording of what the dictator call his “last will and testament” – but which in actuality is a final bellicose burst of propagandistic triumphalism – Rev creates the soundtrack to this journey. Initially, it’s infused with Bach: the famous Toccata (sans fugue), and then – Diman Cha relishing the title with malevolent glee – his chorale prelude Alle Menschen müssen sterben, “All men must die”.

Something profoundly troubling that emerged swiftly and lingered through the first half of the piece was the dictator’s clear love of music. We don’t like to know things like that – we prefer our bogeymen to be culturally ignorant, spiritually bankrupt, intellectually vapid. Satur Diman Cha is none of these things: damn it, once upon a time he would clearly have been likeable. The intermittent bursts of laughter from the audience testified to this – and for the most part, it wasn’t nervous laughter. Not yet, anyway.

Bach’s mellifluous melancholy didn’t just reveal a disquietingly human aspect to the dictator, it cast a dark pall over the space, making the already black banners strewn throughout the concert hall bearing the regime’s symbol – a yellow laurel wreath around a thick red circle, upon which a thin yellow cross is superimposed, like the crosshairs of a gun – somehow become even blacker.

But as Just Call Me God moved into its much more intense second half, it said something else about music – or, to be more accurate, what music can be and do when its harnessed by a figure such as this. Beginning with a performance of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, Rev – still at Satur Diman Cha’s command – surrounds his valedictory oration with what the dictator regards as a fitting accompaniment. In some respects, the music fought back, with dark renditions of God Save the Queen and the Marseilleise – both songs sung by the people en masse – causing one to reflect on what it means to be ruled and to revolt. This was as bold as the music could be; as for the rest, Just Call Me God clarified again the misery that music becomes when forced into servitude for purely propagandistic or ideological ends. Featuring distorted echoes (some, perhaps, imagined) of Beethoven, Ives, Karg-Elert, Ligeti, Franck, Messiaen, Schubert, and yet more Bach – the organ itself becoming distorted through Franz Danksagmüller’s live electronics – Rev’s performance became an emotionally blank, superficial anthem that simultaneously painted a truthful picture of Satur Diman Cha and all he stood for while at the same firing bursts of ersatz electricity through his words. Music as a reredos behind the dictator at his ebony lectern. At times he almost sounded plausible. How entirely terrible. It wasn’t just Symphony Hall that was subterranean: music itself was now plumbing the depths.

Those who came to this performance hoping to hear something more overtly musical clearly went away disappointed. But music, in fact, is utterly central to Just Call Me God. John Malkovich’s performance was terrifyingly malignant, yet when coupled to the manipulative, skin-deep sounds coming from the organ pipes and electronics, he was infinitely more: only now did he become the titular god, only now did he have the remotest chance of holding anyone in his thrall. This, we’re all reminded, is the power of music. This is what it can be, what it can do – if we’re not careful.