Review: Here Lies Love, National Theatre

“Dancing, oh so beautifully
Dancing, dancing together
Dancing, oh as if in a dream”

It’s not often I leave a play with penis envy – giant golden cock hat envy to be precise – but that’s how I felt leaving the newly-opened Dorfman Theatre (the National’s Cottesloe getting a much needed facelift) after the blisteringly good fun of Here Lies Love. (I also felt sad that I didn’t get a glowstick, it was only later I realised they weren’t being handed out to all and sundry.) But by and large, the abiding feeling was one of huge exhilaration, akin to the endorphin rush of a good night’s clubbing, for if you’ve booked correctly, that’s what you get here.

You can sit down to see the show, the tiered seating of the theatre remains intact, but the real route into Alex Timber’s ingeniously immersive production is by getting a dancefloor ticket, whereby one is thrust right into the midst of this utterly idiosyncratic musical which tells of the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines entirely through the medium of dance music from David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. It is so thoroughly audacious a concept that it is hard to fathom how it even came into being, never mind emerge as the huge success it is here.

For I loved it, immensely. Encouraged to dance along and throw out a routine or two by Martin Sarreal’s effervescent DJ, moving around the floor with the inventive parts of David Korins’ set design, avoiding being on camera with President Marcos, melting with joy as Imelda took my hand, there’s so much fun to be had in getting so close to the action that I can’t imagine sitting like a regular for it (though I appreciate it’s not for everyone, I’d’ve just been jealous if I was watching unable to join in). It also serves a genuine purpose in getting you swept up in the intoxicating allure of the Marcos’ world.

And that’s what lies at the heart of the show for this is no dry biography – people searching for crystal-clear narrative are better off reading a book about it – but rather a sensory experience. Lyrics are taken from a variety of found sources but speak with enough clarity that no knowledge of Filipino history is strictly necessary, and the music swings and shakes and eventually shocks and stirs with a real vibrancy. Natalie Mendoza’s hugely charismatic Imelda, a pageant queen who makes good, weds famous man, is an amazing central figure who clearly deserves more of an epitaph than shoes, shoes, shoes.

Byrne refrains from weighting the material too much one way or the other so there’s little judgement inherent in the piece. We get to see just how her relationships from her past panned out though – Dean John-Wilson’s suave former lover Ninoy Aquino and Gia Macuja Atchison as the woman who raised her Estrella Cumpas both deliver fantastic performances. And witness how her love of disco infected so much of her life (a trip to the club scene in New York brings out those golden phalluses) and how this seductive lure of power warped her mindset, the cry of ‘Why Don’t Love Me’ is brilliantly, naively sincere.

Latterly, there’s no shying away from the darker side of the Marcos’ regime – Mark Bautista’s ailing Ferdinand another strong performance – and a beautifully chilling moment comes in the poignancy of ‘Order 1081’ as martial law descends. So it’s clubbing with a conscience as well as a whole heap of fun. And to be perfectly frank, I don’t know if it will be worth reading reviews from anyone sat in the circle, they’d just be missing so much of the point!

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £3
Booking until 8th January, dancefloor tickets are released every Friday at 12 noon for performances in the week ahead – well worth the effort!

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