With that old Rice/Lloyd Webber warhorse Evita currently taking up space back in the West End, ‘tis the season for musicals focusing on the polarising spouses of quasi-fascist dictators, it seems. Following its successful run at New York’s Public Theatre, David Byrne and Norman Cook’s Here Lies Love, directed by Alex Timbers, pitches up in London to become the first production to open at the National Theatre’s refurbished and renamed Dorfman (formerly Cottesloe) auditorium.
Byrne’s Evita-for-Imelda opus sketches out the notorious Ms. Marcos’s rise to prominence against the backdrop of forty or so years of Philippines history, and focuses particularly on her fraught, finally acrimonious relationship with Estrella Cumpas, the woman who raised her. The material was originally presented in a concert setting and then appeared in the form of a starry concept album back in 2010, as Byrne continued to develop and rework the piece prior to its first production proper. I love that album, flaws and all, and I’ve hoped to see a version of the show staged since first hearing the songs. Did the experience on Friday night live up to expectations? Well, let’s just say that, in contrast to last year’s NT extravaganza – also a first musical theatre foray by an art-rock icon, of course - I don’t think I’ll be tempted back to Here Lies Love ten times.
About as far as can be imagined from The Light Princess’s classically inflected, immersive intricacies, the disco, techno and Latin-beat saturated score that Byrne and Cook have composed for Here Lies Love is a predominantly upbeat, candy-coated concoction that certainly won’t be drawing many complaints about – gah – a lack of instantly “catchy” tunes. The show takes its cue and also its concept from Marcos’s well-known predilection for dance music, its conceit being that the action is occurring in a club in which the audience have the opportunity to take a place on the dancefloor, sharing space with the performers. (“If it’s a club, then where’s the bar?” wondered my ever-picky companion as we took our positions.)
This set-up, which nicely suggests a parallel between the rabble-rousing techniques of a DJ (Martin Sarreal takes that role here) and those used by unscrupulous politicos, is by far the most distinctive aspect of Here Lies Love. At its best, the evening gives you the giddy sensation that you can have, when clubbing, of being in a glorious, untouchable bubble, entirely liberated from outside concerns: a feeling that, Byrne contends, is mirrored in the ivory towers that power couples such as the Marcoses construct for themselves. And if one were to see this show ten times from the dancefloor vantage point, each visit would be slightly different due to the shifts in perspective and position that the production’s format demands.
But that’s due to the participatory staging rather any real richness in the text, I’d argue. The album had its share of problems but Byrne’s revising of the material for the show doesn’t seem so much to have solved those flaws as to have exacerbated them. He’s snipped several key early songs that added texture to the Estrella/Imelda dynamic, clumsily conflated others, and composed new tracks – in particular, for the beefed-up role of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino (Dean John Wilson), Marcos’s political nemesis who was also (bizarrely) Imelda’s early beau – that, frankly speaking, aren’t up to scratch. Boasting no book to speak of, the show’s rhythm is super-swift, lurching from one number to the next, with the result that some crucial emotional beats are just skirted over. And the show’s attempt at a crowbarred-in, folky, up-with-the-people coda (oh look: real instruments!) is embarrassingly feeble. (Byrne must suspect as much, since the show quickly resorts to a reprise of the title song to close.)
Complete with a glitter ball, performers hopping from podium to podium, pink-suited ushers instructing us in dance moves, and screens clunkily flashing up explanatory information and images of Imelda, Timbers’s production practically redefines the term “busy.” And yet, as we were herded in to position for the umpteenth time to accommodate another bit of David Korins’s shifting set, I began to feel that a lot of this activity is really just so much window-dressing for material that Byrne still hasn’t sufficiently thought through. Yes, the show has scattered wonderful moments: Mark Bautista’s Ferdinand charming and smarming his way through the crowd on “A Perfect Hand”; a wittily choreographed “Eleven Days” that dizzyingly captures the whirlwind Marcos courtship; Natalie Mendoza’s Imelda falling hard for New York on the Talking Heads-esque “Dancing Together”; a scintillating “Solano Avenue,” reconceived as a taut duet for Imelda and Estrella (Gia Macuja Atchison); Imelda pleading with the exiled Ninoy not to return to the Philippines on a “Seven Years” that scales practically operatic heights. But the whole thing never develops into a dramatically satisfying whole: indeed, overall, it seems much less cohesive and textured than the patchy album did.
In interviews, Byrne keeps expressing his disdain for “traditional” musicals and his concern that Here Lies Love wouldn’t end up “too campy.” Such statements seem a bit rich, since you’d be hard pressed to point to a single moment in this show that doesn’t qualify as camp. Whether its Imelda’s beauty queen episode on the Disney-ish “The Rose of Tacloban,” Estrella peeping through the gates to observe her former charge on her wedding day on “When She Passed By,” or the scantily-clad dancers hoofing through the crassly-staged scorned-woman anthem “Men Will Do Anything” the show is about as gaudy, artificial, shallow and exaggerated as can be. It’s still shallow when it’s trying to be deep (recalling Sontag’s definition of camp as “a seriousness that fails”), as in that awful coda or the moments that attempt to convey the devastating effects of the Marcos regime. Byrne and co. may have thought it necessary to express their disdain for what the Marcos’s did to their country. But artists show their feelings in the way that they construct their characters, and it’s clearly Imelda who most engages Byrne’s interest rather than the entirely generalised Filipino people or even Estrella, who ends up pretty much a cipher in this account.
These may sound like the musings of a killjoy, but as someone who’s spent half the summer in clubs in London, Spain and Poland (all in the name of research for a forthcoming project, of course :)) I don’t think you could find a viewer who was more up for Here Lies Love than I was. My high expectations for the show doubtless account, in part, for the disappointment I experienced, and it’s worth saying here that I think Here Lies Love will be a hit: it’s attention-grabbing and obvious and immediate in a way that people clearly respond to right now. But peer beneath the novelty-value staging, and what’s left seems pretty skimpy, after all. Despite Byrne's intimations, the piece goes no further into its subject than Evita did, and watching it, I began to think of it as, essentially, a reverse Wicked, charting two women’s trajectory from friendship to enmity. But this is a whole lot less of a show.
The production is booking until January 8.