REVIEW: Here Lies Love, Dorfman Theatre At The National ✭✭✭✭✭

Natalie Mendoza in Here Lies Love at the Dorfman Theatre
Natalie Mendoza as Imelda Marcos in Here Lies Love. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Here Lies Love
Dorfman Theatre at the National
15 October 2014
5 Stars

Imagine, if you can, if such a thing were possible, the bastard offspring of Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Assassins. Can’t imagine it? Then visit the National Theatre’s newly opened Dorfman Theatre (the revamped, renamed Cottesloe Theatre – very nice it is too) where The Public Theatre’s incendiary and illustrious production of Here Lies Love, directed by the extraordinary Alex Timbers and written by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, has it on show.

The programme describes Here Lies Love as “a revolutionary musical experience” which is dead accurate, but, confusingly, incomplete. It is overwhelmingly theatrical as well; indeed, it’s inherent approach to and use of theatricality is fundamental to its all-encompassing accessibility and success.

The manner of staging is deliberate, producing an immersive effect for those on the stage level dancefloor and a voyeuristic effect for those seated in the galleries. Instantly, in one stroke, the audience becomes integral to the playing: the Immersives become the people of the Philippines, experience the action up close and personal and, each to the extent they individually determine, join in or resist the propaganda that urges them into action, whether that be movement, song or emotion; the watchers, depending on themselves, can be other people of the Philippines, less engaged or wishing they were on the floor, more engaged, or the rest of the World, watching on in awe and fascination. It is not possible, or indeed sensible, to seek to resist involvement in this breath-taking, entrancing piece of theatrical magic.

David Korins’ set, to quote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, has to be believed to be seen. It’s not a set; it’s whatever it needs to be. It is an exhilarating integrated design that pulses and throbs with colour, light and constant change and, on its own, encapsulates the notion of media fuelled propaganda campaigns. If there was a Pulitzer Prize for stage design, Korins would have it in the bag.

Clever, moveable platforms create a discotheque feel (the gargantuan mirror ball helps with that!) for the immersive level, but, equally, keeps the political action and developments on a higher plane than mere mortals. Except for the sections where the politicians move among the people for their own purposes. Each wall of the immersive space can morph from plain blank wall to backdrop to moving images on screen. There is not a single aspect to Korins’ magical, mercurial design which does not accentuate, assist or establish the intent of the vibrant book and score. It’s phenomenal.

The narrative traces the rise and fall of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcus, but more through the prism of Imelda’s experience: her initial love for, then rejection by Ninoy Aquino; her whirlwind absentee courting with Marcos; their marriage and triumphant early years when they looked like and were treated like Philippines’ Camelot couple; their dual corruption/seduction by the trappings of Western wealth and power; their excess and brutality while in power; the incarceration and assassination of Aquino; Ferdinand’s infidelity and assumption of total power; the Press’ pursuit of the truth of the Imelda myth; the unravelling of their power; and the People Power Revolution which resulted in their extraction to safety by the American Government. Powerful, important topics.

Essentially, it’s an all through music: catchy dance tunes, heartfelt ballads and power anthems. Together with sequences of real recorded history – the tape recording of the prelude to sex between Ferdinand and his actress mistress is surprisingly shocking; and the murder of Aquino heart-stopping, despite it being an historical certainty. Something ineffable is at action – the powerful compelling beauty of the music makes the atrocities all the more impactful. Great music and great lyrics in combination to produce great theatre.

The cast is outstanding.

Natalie Mendoza is wonderful as Imelda and painstakingly details her path from unknowing ingénue to confused Queen, without once trying to sugar-coat the diabolical and self-interested paths upon which Imelda trod in her shoes. Her voice is powerful, free at both top and bottom and beautifully sustained in the middle, rich, engaging and vibrant with power. She is beautiful and graceful, wears Clint Ramos’ fabulous costumes stylishly, and engages with the audience in an intoxicating way. Her rendition of Why Don’t You Love Me caps a series of faultless performances of wonderful tunes with high octane vocals and deeply felt emotional charges.

Mark Bautista is a surprisingly sexy Ferdinand, all smooth moves, smooth chest and smooth voice. He seduces the audience as effectively as he seduces Imelda. His voice is gorgeous, especially in the higher register and, like everyone here, he can dance extremely well, almost hypnotically. Annie-B Parson’s spirted, energetic and uncompromising choreography is deceptively intricate but always suits the moment and Bautista shines while executing his moves.

Between them, Bautista and Mendoza stir memories of the Camelot Kennedys, making what is already a very politically charged piece, just that more multi-layered and thought-provoking. This is not just a piece about the Marcos regime; it’s about the corruption of Western Democracy and the pressure-points that hold it together.

As Ninoy Aquino, Dean John-Wilson is superb. Beguiling, charismatic, committed to the cause of right and, ultimately, heroic, John-Wilson provides the counter-point to the Marcos dazzle. Another superb voice and skilled dancer; another powerhouse performance. He is remarkable in his delivery of Gate 37, the song that ends with is assassination.

When She Passed By is the first number to indicate, clearly, that there is something rotten in Denmark, as Gia Macuja Atchinson (as Estrella, the former childhood friend of Imelda who is discarded as Marcos beckons) describes how happy she felt at the Marcos’ wedding even though she was not invited and watched from the street crowd. Atchinson has a glorious voice, expressive, haunting and stuffed with clarity of meaning and golden tones. Her second Act number, Solano Avenue, is equally effective at changing moods. And minds.

As the DJ who whips the Immersives into a frenzy of arm movements and simple steps and who puppeteers the disco sense of the presentation of the music, Martin Sarreal is gold. His energy levels are off the Richter scale and he superbly marshals the crowd. Then, he comes into his own in the final number, God Draws Straight, a simple, beautiful tune with lyrics taken verbatim from the testimonies of those who were there; it is a total change of mood and music, as the Marcos influence ends and the people of Manila bring peace to their world. Captivating and sublime.

Everyone in the cast excels; the high energy on display is remarkable and none of it is misplaced. Timbers has put together an extraordinary piece of theatre, which is as innovative and thought-provoking as it is beautiful and joyous. It is no exaggeration to say that I have never seen anything like it. Glorious stuff with high bopping potential.

See what the opening night audience thought of Here Lies Love

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