Here Lies Love
Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX
October 20, 2014 to January 8, 2015
Well there's no shoes and no Ruby Wax but apart from that that this portrait in disco of Imelda Marcos, the shoe–crazed wife of the former Philippine President, couldn't be more perfect or more original.
Talking Heads front man David Byrne and acclaimed DJ and record producer Fat Boy Slim dub their creation a 'Revolutionary Musical Experience', and so it should be, for Imelda loved to boogie. She converted a floor of her Upper East Side penthouse into a nightclub and was a regular habitué of Studio 54 during those Warhol years. She was, it must be remembered, a beauty pageant winner who used karaoke to rally the masses.
This show is more a danceable song–cycle than a regular musical and it has practically no libretto, which is a kind of liberation. Only on occasion does the curse of recitative raise its ugly head, but this is kept in check and from the outset the songs are wondrously catchy. What makes Byrne's work so remarkable is that the lyrics are derived mostly from speeches and interviews and they are all expertly blended with Byrne's signature electro pop sound so that the songs expertly convey the life story of this modern day Evita. What's even more remarkable is that Byrne achieves this in only 85 minutes, a fact which other composers of 3–hour musical dirges should learn from.
Staged as a promenade production it is directed by Broadway's current wunderkind, Alex Timbers, and the creative team who premièred it at New York's Public Theatre, have transferred to London. It's just the cast that is new and what a cast it is. Natalie Mendoza combines a commanding singing voice with a fatal charisma. As she progresses through the dance floor audience singing 'Let Me Be Your Star and Slave', you'd follow her anywhere. Handsome Mark Bautista is an eye–catching Ferdinand and Gia Macuja Atchison excels, as Estralla, the former maid who knew Imelda when she was nothing, wouldn't shut up about it, and so had to be dealt with.
Timbers' staging is fluid and tight at the same time. About half the audience in the newly refurbed Dorfman Theatre (formerly the Cottesloe) are in the two galleries while the rest are on the dance floor they've created in the stalls. Blasted with state–of–the art sound and lighting they are herded like disco sheep every time the platforms have to move but all this is expertly executed. The audience happily joins in with the dances when required but it never feels coercive. This is immersive theatre with a purpose and is masterfully conceived by a brilliant team led by set designer David Korins.
But in the end is this just a disco romp? The answer is most definitely no, because, as politics becomes more about surface, who better to reflect on than this tabloid First Couple. As Byrne points out in an excellent programme note the couple were way ahead of their time in understanding the art of spin. There's no whitewash here. Through clever use of video and captions we learn the historical facts and we come to our own judgements. Like most politics their story is so crazy you couldn't make it up.
Like Icarus before her Imelda flew too close to the Sun. She went from humiliating poverty and being jilted by Ninoy Aquino (the Philippine's other political giant) to being fêted by every world leader and the Jet Set. What Byrne and Fat Boy Slim have achieved here is to transmute her operatic driving passion into dance music, that most potent distillation of life at its most vibrant. It's a Handel opera but with funk.