Here Lies Love, National Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

There are two revolutions currently taking place in the National’s refurbished and newly rechristened Dorfman Theatre (previously the Cottesloe). One is the peaceful People Power protest that ousted the Marcos regime in the Philippines in an astonishing four days in 1986. The other is a small revolution in mainstream musical form, as David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s pounding, glitter-encrusted take on the life of Imelda Marcos puts audiences right at its pulsating heart.

Or perhaps revolution is too strong. More accurately, what Here Lies Love does is marry elements of immersive performance and gig-as-theatre to the more usually conventional form of the musical. What that means as an audience member – unless you choose to hide away up in the circle – is being thrust under the disco ball and into the action. Inspired by Imelda’s taste for the New York nightlife, Alex Timbers’ staging and David Korins’ design transform the Dorfman into a club of sorts, in which the dramatic action happens not in front of us but around us.

Taking place on stages, platforms and catwalks on all sides, the show breathlessly – and entirely in song – tells the story of Imelda’s rise and fall. We first see her as a simple country girl, singing dreamily about love, but within the swirl of a skirt she is winning beauty contests and setting her sights on Manila, where she meets and quickly weds rising political star Ferdinand Marcos. The whole thing is swift and relentless, its soundtrack beating out plot point after plot point in a series of murderously catchy songs. There’s no time for the attention to waver, let alone to reflect. This is a noisy, glittering juggernaut of a musical, pausing for no one.

As a result, anyone hoping for political insight or analysis of the Marcos era will inevitably be disappointed. The creative team do an impressive job of speedy storytelling, but the rhythm of the show doesn’t allow for the more intricate nuances of power and influence. There are plenty of unanswered questions, both about the Marcoses themselves and the people they ruled. Poverty, corruption and the tangled international threads woven between the Philippines, the US and a number of dubious world leaders all get mentions and little more.

But neither is Here Lies Love built for this kind of political complexity. This is a show about the excitement and intoxication of power rather than about its particular mechanisms. And in this it undoubtedly succeeds, sweeping us up in its heady, irresistible outpouring of booty-shaking joy. It’s loud, brash and occasionally downright ludicrous, but no less giddily enjoyable for any of its flaws.

Participation is key here. (For me, as it turned out, more participation than I’d bargained for.) Part of what makes Here Lies Love so intensely, well, loveable is the experience of moving and dancing with it, helplessly seduced by the glamour and the music. Like the initially adoring public of the Philippines and the leaders all over the globe who fell in love with this Asian answer to the Kennedys, we are utterly taken in, before our involvement later takes on a more uncomfortable and complicit edge.

There’s a clear parallel too between the allure of a glamorous leader and the adoration heaped on the stars of stage and screen. In the lead role, Natalie Mendoza lightly plays with this analogy, making it easy to imagine how she might inspire such hysterical levels of devotion. Much more than a charismatic stage presence and an impressive set of lungs, Mendoza also visibly toughens as the show lurches forward, transforming from the soft Rose of Tacloban to a diamond-hard politician. In her steely gaze and stiff, proud shoulders, we can begin to understand some of Imelda’s motivations.

Perhaps appropriately, however, the woman at the centre of Here Lies Loveremains somewhat elusive. This is not really about offering a new perspective on Imelda’s experience; this is about shining, seductive symbols of power more than it is about those powerful individuals themselves. Instead of seeing Imelda, we see the outfits, the smile, the endless glamour and extravagance, the continued pretence – or maybe a persistent self-delusion – that everything is done out of love. The show’s strapline declares “power to the party” and that’s exactly it. Here Lies Love invites us all to the sparkling, exhilarating, superficial party of the Marcoses rule, and guiltily we – like Imelda – don’t want the party to stop.

The Universal Machine, New Diorama Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Can machines think? It’s a question that captivated mathematician and code-breaker Alan Turing, a life-long obsession with the mechanical that is signalled in the very title of this unlikely but intriguing new musical about his life. Here, the desire for a more machine-like existence – one without aging or change or any of the messy complications of being human – is a central and recurring if not fully excavated theme. The desire might be there, but its full implications resist exploration.

Turing’s life and particularly his complex, pioneering work are not easily reducible to a concise two hour show, making writer and director David Byrne’s careful process of pruning and selection an impressive achievement in itself. He has taken as his focus this wistful fascination with machinery, a fascination that is contrasted with Turing’s few valued human relationships; his mother, portrayed in a moving turn from Judith Paris, is a constant background presence, while a youthful infatuation with close friend Christopher Morcom is shown to haunt the rest of Turing’s life and all his intellectual endeavours. He yearns for the uncomplicated existence of the machine, yet he wrestles with emotion that is far from coldly mechanical. It’s significant that when Turing looks to the future, predicting the rise of artificial intelligence, he speaks of machines that will be capable of love.

Just like Turing, Byrne’s show can’t entirely shun the sentimental in favour of the mechanical, but for the most part this production avoids over-playing the tragic elements of its protagonist’s short life. Instead, attention is given to his extraordinary mind, its workings and its memories scrawled out on the stage of the New Diorama Theatre. Bare black walls, occasionally used to host projections, suggest the scholarly blackboard, while the near-constant presence of desks cements an atmosphere of sometimes feverish concentration. As Turing looks back over his life – a device of speaking across time that provides a useful if occasionally clumsy frame – a carefully selected range of props acquire the traces of memory, hooking the narrative into the next scene.

As so often with the musical form, there’s the danger of a complex narrative being stripped down to a series of neat plot points, significant moments that offer the opportunity to break out into song. Dominic Brennan’s music is at its best when reflecting the mechanical workings of Turing’s mind, clicking along with a rapid pace reminiscent of the turning cogs of both machinery and mind as the Bletchley Park cryptanalysts build the bombe, the machine Turing designed to help break the Enigma code during World War II. Elsewhere, however, its use is not entirely clear, sometimes serving a plot function, sometimes offering emotional illumination – as with Sara Turing’s heart-breaking attempt to come to terms first with her son’s homosexuality and then with his suicide – sometimes simply providing a few laughs. Early on there’s the suggestion that the musical genre could intelligently unpick Turing’s painful difficulty connecting with the world, the song of those around him highlighting his own alienation, but this possibility quickly fades away.

The production does, however, manage to convey a sense of a man out of place in his own time, a man who might well seek solace in machines when the human world disappointed and baffled him. In this central role, Richard Delaney is a quiet, awkward presence, still but for his habitual fidgeting, while the rest of the cast whirl chaotically around him. Turing might be at the centre, but he avoids the spotlight, remaining the fixed focal point of a narrative that becomes just as much about those around him. Fitting as the enigma of Turing’s personality might be, the fictionalised insight that the piece promises remains just out of reach. Turing’s story never fails to compel, but it leaves us frustratedly searching for more.

Faction Theatre Company

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Originally written for Exeunt.

“The text always comes first.” These emphatic words from artistic director Mark Leipacher might well serve as a creative philosophy for the text-focused Faction Theatre Company. As we chat in one of the rehearsal rooms at the labyrinthine Bridewell Theatre, where the company are poring over Mary Stuart downstairs, I am told that every read-through is conducted “as if we hadn’t read the play before”.

The Faction is an ensemble-based theatre company dedicated to interpreting classic plays, producing their own brand of “big, classical, epic theatre”. When we meet, the company are in the middle of intense rehearsals for their upcoming rep season at the New Diorama Theatre, an ambitious rolling programme of three plays, all incorporating the same cast of ten actors.

Leipacher and executive producer Kate Sawyer recognise that this traditional rep system is one that has largely fallen out of use in the UK. Their artistic inspiration instead comes from across the Channel; they aim to eventually run like a European theatre company, with a permanent ensemble, a home venue and a rolling repertoire of plays. Mounting their first full rep season in January and February is a decisive step in that direction.

“Rather than it being confusing, it actually clarifies things,” replies Sawyer when I ask her about the challenges of rep theatre. She compares the process to writing a university dissertation at the same time as studying additional courses, explaining that the plays all inform one another. Sawyer also believes that a rep season, as well as being more financially sustainable, provides more interest for the audience.

The trio of plays that Faction have chosen to perform in rep – Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Schiller’s Mary Stuart and Strindberg’s Miss Julie – are linked by the theme of ‘women and power’ and all three, as Sawyer puts it, “refract each other”. Leipacher explains that while the thematic connection was “not entirely by accident”, the individual plays were selected first before it became clear that there was a gender political thread running through them.

If there is any other key defining element of Faction’s work, other than their attention to classical texts and their revival of the rep system, it is its distinctly physical style. Style, however, is never imposed at the expense of text. “Our style is physical and muscular and very bombastic,” says Leipacher, “but it always comes from the text. This is not a physical theatre piece inspired by a text; this is a production of a text and the aesthetic happens to be physical”.

At a time when there is an increasing focus on new writing, I ask Leipacher and Sawyer what so attracts them to classic texts. The reply is instant and decisive: “there is no better material,” states Leipacher. “If you want a theatrical experience, you need material that has real substance and grit and scope,” he continues. “These texts are still human; they still have universal truths in them.” Sawyer adds that “it might have been written 400 years ago, but it absolutely describes what you went through last week”.

One classic playwright who has had a particular influence on Faction is Schiller, a writer whose work is often neglected in this country. Hoping to turn this around, the company have decided to produce his complete dramatic works, culminating in the first ever London production of William Tell. The aim is to reinvent the public opinion of Schiller’s drama.

“It’s pure guts and passion,” enthuses Sawyer, contradicting the popular opinion of German classics as being heavy and dull. Leipacher goes on to explain that “all of those words that we use to describe our work and everything that excites us about our work, Schiller has those in spades. His characters are impulsive, willful creatures.”

The impression given by Faction, and one that turns out to be overwhelmingly true, is primarily of a hard-working company. There are few other theatre companies that would take on a challenge like the complete Schiller with such tenacity, but hard graft has been something of a philosophy for Faction from the beginning. They have not stopped working since their conception, regularly performing one production while preparing for the next – as Leipacher laughs, “we literally didn’t stop!”

This hard work has recently seen their efforts recognised with the Peter Brook Equity Ensemble Award. Although Faction say that it is too early to measure the real difference that winning this accolade will make to them as a company, Leipacher is quick to admit that “having some sort of marker or validation becomes important” when trying to stand out among the plethora of other young companies.

They attribute a measure of their success, however, to the support they have received, particularly from the New Diorama Theatre. This young theatre in the heart of London has provided a space exclusively for emerging theatre companies of the likes of Faction, who are now an associate company. Leipacher firmly states that “we certainly wouldn’t be at the stage we are at now without their support”.

The creative atmosphere at the New Diorama, I am told, is freeing yet supportive. “They really do enable,” says Leipacher, “it’s not just a case of ‘here’s the auditorium, bye’, they’re with you beyond that”. David Byrne, the theatre’s artistic director, is full of enthusiasm for the company, describing their work as having a “raw, young energy” and explaining that “they’re really dedicated to making sure they do it properly”.

Doing it properly is a concern that seems to be at the centre of Faction’s creative approach. For their next rep season, the company are already asking their audiences what they would like to see, using this input to help them provide what theatregoers are looking for.

As we wrap up our chat, I ask if the company has any tips for other young theatre companies who are just starting out. Leipacher’s response is simple: “just keep working”. After all, it’s a tactic that seems to be working out for Faction.

Photo: Richard Davenport