Review: Here Lies Love by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, at the Dorfman stage, National theatre

Public theatre cast in New York. Photo Joan Marcus

Public theatre cast in New York. Photo Joan Marcus

A few days ago, watching James III of the James Plays trilogy, I “moaned” that the production doesn’t allow the audience to dance. A few days later, watching (or rather “experiencing”) Here Lies Love at the newly opened Dorfman I got my wish. Given that Here Lies Love is a history play of sorts, it all ties well together.

All kidding and spurious connections aside, the musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim is a unique proposition. The word unique is overused but I think I am on solid ground: it’s a disco musical about Imelda Marcos (poor girl in Philippines becomes first lady, and excess queen, and dictator’s wife) that is staged on the dance floor. This is important: it’s not a play that borrows elements of a night club. It’s a play that belongs to a night club.

The Dorfman theatre steps up to the challenge and becomes more than a passing imitation of the real thing: the auditorium is dominated by a raised gangway, platforms and screens on all sides, and disco balls. The beat of the music is thumping from the moment you enter, which was all the incentive I needed to start dancing and moving and bobbing around.

After that, much of it is a blur. Which might be the desired result for an evening dancing but it doesn’t work very well when you want to write a review. I am not saying that Here Lies Love doesn’t work as a piece of theatre. Quite the opposite. But I may not remember enough to prove that it does. I might not care enough either. That’s the intention all along: not to negate criticism but to steer it in a way that it needs to find new tools because the old ones don’t work. The endorphins of the dance floor and the high and the disorientation of it all are the play.

Regardless, I do remember some: the gangways move, reassemble and transform much like a giant puzzle box (and we are in it). The play moves in breathtaking speed covering 30 years in 90 minutes. Some of it is knowingly naff and some of it is unexpectedly moving. The seduction of the beat is like a drug, it lies to you at the same time as it drums horrors into your brain. The screen projections don’t merely bridge gaps of information: they create that memory of excess, that dizzying feeling of Marie Antoinette wondering why they don’t eat cake.

Natalie Mendoza as Imelda is remarkable: she projects innocence and hardness in equal measures, a sweaty uncompromising grace like a python just before it suffocates you to death. Mark Bautista as Ferdinand Marcos has a cold calculated beauty like a member of a boy band ready for whatever it takes. Dean John-Wilson as Ninoy Aquino has a warmer suppler quality, a softer gaze, a bigger heart.

Director Alex Timbers and David Byrne and much of the creative team were on the floor for the duration. This is not a minor point. On the dance floor, you are in it. Everyone else in the galleries is outside. I don’t say that with spite but the production is not made for people in the galleries. I would be quite interested to know how it looks from up there. I would be interested to know if any critics will see it from the dance floor. The production needs a cool eye, if only for people like me to say that’s not the point at all. Then again, I might not stick around long enough for the argument. The music is loud, the beat is inviting. This is no time for talk.

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