Tag Archives: Public Theater

“Here Lies Love” at the National Theatre

The National Theatre’s gone all trendy. Passing the new, stylish Understudy Bar, to the swanky refurbishment of the Dorfman (formerly Cottesloe) auditorium, you can see that plenty of money has been splashed around. And the first show in the renamed space is just as startling: a musical ‘experience’ by David ‘Talking Heads’ Byrnes and Fatboy Slim (aka Norman Cook).

To be fair, the National does its best to embrace all kinds of work and this production comes from New York’s Public Theatre. Here Lies Love is so achingly ‘out there’ it could annoy, but there’s a stubbornness to do something different that wins admiration. Something this fresh, almost innocent, has its appeal.

Byrnes and Cook aren’t known for musical theatre, rather their iconoclastic approaches to pop music. Here Lies Love is about Imelda Marcos – yet there’s no mention of her infamous shoe collection. It’s a story of revolution, like other notable musicals, but the Philippines People Power Revolution was a peaceful one; a truly inspiring story, but not automatically the greatest drama.

The dance music works surprisingly well with dramatic political events that call on the crowd. But the beat fails to deliver when a song aims for emotional sincerity, creating bathos instead. A DJ, played by Martin Sarreal, presides over events, but it’s notable that his finest moment is with an acoustic guitar rather than at a turntable.

The show is a collection of songs rather than a true musical – which is interesting, but creates some problems. Exposition comes from signs and voice-overs rather than the songs. Lyrics aren’t strong but occasions when real life transcripts are utilised are gripping. Imelda’s rags to riches story isn’t exactly wasted but it isn’t fully explored either. What depth the characters have comes from the performances.

Jpeg 4. Christopher Chung (ensemble) and Mark Bautista (Fedinand Marcos)_Here Lies Love_credit Tristram Kenton
Mark Bautista as Fedinand Marcos

And the performances are fantastic. Seldom have I seen such an energetic cast on stage, nor, incidentally, such a good-looking one.  is stunning in the lead role, making Imelda an unexpected heroine and a suitably magnetic figure. Imelda’s love interests, first the aspiring, later rival, politician Ninoy Aquino (Dean John-Wilson) and then her husband Ferdinand (Mark Bautista), both have great stage presence. All can sing and dance powerfully well – and that’s no mean feat when you are running a country at the same time.

The staging is remarkable; a huge technical treat, forcefully directed by Alex Timbers, with special ushers to marshal the crowd around a rotating stage. All this immersion is so fashionable it can seem tokenistic, but if it’s your thing you will dance and sing along. There’s a lesson in line dancing – and don’t forget the Philippines invented karaoke. Here Lies Love almost lives up to its tag line of being ‘revolutionary’. Despite connections to other musicals and theatre trends, it’s not quite like anything else – which is a pretty strong recommendation.

Until 8 January 2015


Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Hair” at the Gielgud Theatre

Hair is an important show. It was the first rock musical, first production to feature nudity on a British stage and the first US show to give equal billing to black performers. A huge success, it came to symbolise the counter culture movement of the late 1960s. Yet while the cast sing about the dawn of the age of Aquarius many astrologer’s say it happened in 1997. Hair might be important, but is it worth reviving?

New York’s Public Theater, who have arrived in London en masse, obviously think so. The energy and conviction of this production is clear from the start and it never wavers. This in itself is intoxicating. Add all the wonderful songs, skilfully orchestrated by their composer Galt MacDermot, with strong singers and you are sure to have a great night out.

Hair isn’t going to shock anymore. Actors taking off their clothes and swearing won’t even raise eyebrows. But director Diane Paulus knows this. The nudity is handled in a tasteful, almost dismissive way. The sexual explicitness is cleverly played for laughs. What Paulus seems to have used this bawdy content for it to bring together the huge cast so that they convincingly play ‘the tribe’ that Hair is all about – there is a fantastic sense of this group as a community.

This exploration of a society is more important than the plot, which after all is thin. Claude, played by Gavin Creel, is about to be drafted. A modern day Hamlet, he finds his obligations pressing down on him as his youth comes to an end. Responsibilities weigh on him to the extent that he wants to become invisible – his particular articulation that his too solid flesh should melt. Creel is outstanding in portraying this angst and his character’s journey. That’s a big achievement given the similarly gifted performers who share the stage.

Will Swenson’s Berger has the crowd on side from the first with some inspired adlibbing. His physicality and almost animal presence make his role as the tribe’s resident stud entirely believable. (I always suspected some people did better out of free love than others and now I have proof). As a further qualification for the role he has magnificent hair. Shining, gleaming, streaming hair – which he puts to great use. It almost made me wish I still had long hair myself. And there would have been plenty of opportunities to join in. The cast are continually addressing and mingling with the audience. There is even the chance to go on stage at the end (albeit with health and safety restrictions dutiful observed). Although all this running around can seem slightly lost in the Edwardian grandeur of the Gielgud, it’s a great deal of fun and a real crowd pleaser.

What’s important about all this audience participation is that the emphasis is on sharing – the tribe want us to experience with them. This makes the evening joyous and also, as Claude’s story comes to its end, surprisingly poignant. Although contemporary events are never alluded to, the fashion in soldiers’ uniforms doesn’t change much and it must be in everyone’s mind that young Americans are still dying in battle today.

It’s easy to knock the hippies. If you aren’t a child of the baby boomers then those lauding the 60s can seem annoyingly insistent. Even if the spirit that Hair embodies so well can sometimes seem naïve, this revival serves to make us question any superiority we might slip into. Are we really more rebellious than those who broke down so much social conformism? The question becomes; how does the age of Aquarius that we live in compare to the one that was so compellingly sought.

Until 4 September 2010

Photo by Joan Marcus

Written 19 April 2010 for The London Magazine