On walking into the rebranded spanking new Dorfman Theatre, you would be forgiven for thinking that the National had paid the wrong developers. The Dorfman doesn’t look like a theatre, it looks like a club: a bopping crowd, razor lights and even a DJ. In fact, it looks specifically like a club I once visited in Prague, but that is beside the point.
This is, of course, all for Here Lies Love, David Byrne’s collaboration with Fatboy Slim, a disco musical fresh from New York, and the Dorfman Theatre’s maiden outing. It tells the story of Imelda Marcos, the first lady of the Philippines. Coming from humble origins, she is propelled into the limelight when she marries Ferdinand Marcos, a promising senator who with her help is elected president in 1966. She is immersed in the glitz and glamour of her new life, leaving behind her roots – particularly the maid who cared for her in childhood – with the pronouncement “sometimes we have to make sacrifices for the good of the country”.
There are obvious parallels to be made with the Evita story; Imelda was in fact once labelled ‘the Philippines’ ‘Evita’’ by Ninoy Aquino, Marcos’s political opponent (and Imelda’s former boyfriend). Here Lies Love is sung through, like Evita, and in this clubby setting that aspect of it makes sense.
For once I would recommend a standing ticket. Sitting in the gallery, I was jealous of the standing audience members down below, who looked like they were having the most fun, moving around as the stage rotates and dancing right along with the action.
The show is a real spectacle; the dance numbers and songs infectious and the performances close to perfection, however the plot lacked substance. While many people seem to remember these events going on, it was all new to me, because I wasn’t born until 1995. Much of the show only made sense after I had read about the history in the programme – I wanted more information packed into the plot. The story is fascinating, Imelda’s infectious charisma, the rags to riches story, her earlier relationship with her husband’s biggest opponent – I could go on. However, the events were illustrated instead of the story being told.
Under Marcos’ rule, the Philippines fall into a tyrannical rule and is ultimately put under martial law. It’s strange at the end of a show to be in a place were your heroine is not someone you particularly like or respect. In fact, we find ourselves rooting for the forces acting against her. This is quite an uncomfortable tension which is not really dealt with here.
Alex Timber’s staging is completely hypnotising and well complemented by the video projections by Peter Nigrini: one character sings about Imelda making history as that very history plays out on the big screen behind her. Justin Townsend’s lighting and Clint Ramos’ costumes perfectly create the atmosphere and the many seamless, often onstage, costume changes make the show feel like a whirlwind.
The performances of the three leads, and often at such close proximity to the audience, were extremely strong. Natalie Mendoza did a wonderful job of portraying Imelda’s ageing and dramatic changing of character. This is one of those times when the whole ensemble was utterly faultless and the vocals, in particular Dean John-Wilson as Ninoy, were impressive.
David Byrne writes about his hopes to shine a light on this amazing story in history, and it is safe to say he is doing just that, you will go away itching to Google and find out more.
Here Lies Love is playing at the National Theatre until 8 January 2015. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.