After much success at the Public Theater in New York last year, Here Lies Love receives its European premiere at the National’s newest venue, the Dorfman. Rather than calling this a musical theatre show, however, I would describe Here Lies Love as a musical theatre experience.
Musicians David Byrne (from the band Talking Heads) and DJ Fatboy Slim have collaborated together to tell the story of the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines. Taking on the lead role, Natalie Mendoza struts around the stage and captures the feistiness and authority of Imelda’s rise to power with ease. (Almost like a certain mega popstar who’s played the First Lady of a country before…) However, Mendoza completely lacks in softness vocally in her ballads, meaning that we, as an audience, cannot gain any emotional connection with her, watching Imelda as she falls to failure.
Yet what makes Here Lies Love such an experience is down to the ensemble. The commitment and energy in their choreography and their effort into making the audience feel involved with them cannot be flawed. Byrne captures Imelda’s love for the nightclub scene with an innovative 360-degree staging, designed brilliantly by Alex Timbers. This had the majority of the audience standing and dancing around to the music provided by some mysterious sunglasses-wearing DJ seated high above the audience. That’s right. For 12 weeks only, the National Theatre has turned into the Ministry of Sound.
With impressive and, almost, blinding lighting and bass-pumping music, you would forget that you were at the theatre. This is the main problem in Here Lies Love. All of the spectacle around you overshadows the story of a country in political revolution. As we see Imelda mourning for her lack of support from her country, I had members of the audience next to me smiling and dancing along to the music instead. Whether this was intentional by Byrne to suggest a metaphor of Imelda’s full-frontal personality, who knows. For me, however, as much as I wanted to feel some sort of emotion for these characters in poverty, I was distracted by the random line dances that were taking place around me midway through the show.
Here Lies Love is certainly theatrical. However, it lacks ‘theatre’ and depth in its message and storyline. Nonetheless, I came out feeling fabulous as if I had just downed 5 Cosmopolitans. If you want to feel good and dance the night away alongside the actors, I encourage you to take on the experience that Here Lies Love has to offer. But if, like me, you would rather see ‘theatre’, I advise you walk 5 minutes down the Southbank and see what the other venues at the National have to offer.
Reviewed by Barry O’Reilly
Here Lies Love is playing at the National Theatre until 8 January 2015.