Maarte: Theatricality and Excess in Here Lies Love at the Royal National Theatre

This is a first stab (an essai in the proper sense) at what will eventually become a chapter about the London production of Here Lies Love as part of my current book project, Men Without Shadows: Performing East Asian in the United Kingdom. All comments are really valuable!

The title, maarte, is a Tagalog word that means ‘show-off’ (from the Spanish-derived arte, art).

Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos
Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos

A colleague from the Philippines told me a story about what Imelda Marcos gets up to on the weekends. ‘Did you know’, he said, ‘she goes to Greenbelt [a shopping mall in the business district of Makati, Manila] and walks around with her bodyguard carrying an umbrella over her. If someone waves at her she tells her guard “100 pesos”, and the guard gives it to the person.’ But does she actually do any shopping? I asked. ‘Not really. She just goes so people can see her.’

This useless performance of self is fundamentally Marcos, for Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines and former Governor of Metro Manila from 1975 to 1986, is the embodiment of the theatricality of politics. When I talk about the theatricality of politics, in no way to I mean to suggest that the Marcoses or Martial Law was ‘just a show’, that is, not ‘real’ or actual. Rather, I use it to draw attention to the way ‘appearance’ and the darker corollary of ‘disappearance’ oscillates throughout all politics, despotic or not.

Here Lies Love, recently opened at new Dorfman space at the Royal National Theatre, points to the theatricality of politics better than any other production I have ever seen, and perhaps also says something about the politics of theatricality. David Byrne and director Alex Timbers’ most marvellous conceptual gesture is to apply an excess of theatricality to the story of a woman who lived her life (and continues to live it) as a series of theatrical tableaux.

The number 'Please Don't' in Here Lies Love. Imelda's costume is one of many inspired by the 'terno', the Filipino traditional dress that Imelda wore.
The number ‘Please Don’t’ in Here Lies Love. Imelda’s costume is one of many inspired by the ‘terno’, the Filipino traditional dress that Imelda wore.

Here Lies Love is stunningly good. It is better than anything else on stage in London at the moment. It is fun. It is critically engaged. And it is important.

This comes as a bit of a relief. When the ‘Imelda Marcos Musical’ was announced at the National, I was ready for it to be terrible. I prepared myself for worst-case scenarios about the show itself—would it simply be a celebration of a monstrous couple that killed so many? Would British audiences know this history? Would they just dance happily along? Would it be Evita in Manila? I listened to the New York cast recording but I couldn’t tell if it was a critical of the Marcoses or not. I had other worries—would it be full of yellow face casting? Would Denise Van Outen be cast as Imelda? Would the newspaper articles about it use racist puns in their headlines? Then the cast was announced—the first all-East Asian cast I have ever seen outside of Asia. My trepidation turned to excitement. On the day of the performance I felt overwhelmed by the significance of it all: I am going to the Royal National Theatre in London, to see a show about the Philippines. The National was staging Philippine history. ‘Please don’t mess this up!’ I tweeted.

It’s hard to communicate what it felt like to see Philippine history embodied in this way in the context of National, and to see Filipino/as and East Asian actors—that is, people who look like me—doing the embodying. It’s almost embarrassing to admit how emotional I felt. But: for a long time, the only time I heard ‘the Philippines’ spoken in the UK media was as the punch-line to a joke by a stand-up comedian or television presenter: ‘something something, Filipino houseboy.’ Or worse, ‘something something Filipino hooker.’ The Philippines seemed to be a catch-all signifier for ‘third-world’: it stood in for poverty, sex tourism, corruption, and sweatshops. I remember wearing a t-shirt I had bought in Manila (at Greenbelt, incidentally), which advertised the 2011 Manila Film Festival and someone thinking it was a joke. Surely an impoverished country like the Philippines couldn’t have a film festival. When I pointed out that indeed, though I hadn’t actually attended it, 2011 was the 37th Metro Manila film festival and that the Philippines had a rather large film industry, he responded with a laugh that they should sort out their shanty-towns first. There was a clear implication in this hypocritical positioning—not for the third world the luxuries of the West, get rid of poverty first, then we’ll talk.

Here Lies Love ruptures this paternalistic and patronising discursive network by throwing at in an excess of theatricality. The show is so sensorially over-stimulating that it is impossible not to be swept up by its affective invitation. In doing so, it interrupts the colonial narrative of the Philippines (and other countries of the Global South) as a place to be saved. Of course the Philippines has a lot of poverty and a lot of inequality. Here Lies Love does not show us the slums and the barrios. Instead, it embodies the political processes by which poverty and inequality come about.

This is the politics of theatricality that Michael Billington’s three-star review of the piece fundamentally misses. Billington laments the musical’s lack of a book, writing ‘I came out feeling that such a subject craves more complex treatment.’ While he acknowledges that ‘a musical is not a history lesson’, he is disappointed that ‘we never fully understand how the Marcos regime survived as long as it did.’

This is false. We find out exactly how the Marcos regime survived—through a combination of state violence and the manipulation of appearance. While I was initially sceptical of Philippine history presented as a series of music videos, having seen the performance I suggest that this form is precisely how the history of Imelda Marcos should be presented. Alex Timbers’ staging and Annie-B Parsons’ choreography understands this intrinsically.

When we first see Imelda, portrayed by Natalie Mendoza in one of the best musical theatre performances I have ever seen, she is static, kneeling in a blue dress, in front of Peter Nigrini’s projection of Leyte, Visayas, in monsoon season. She sings the first verse of the title song in this tableaux vivant, the costumes and sepia-toned video creating an image of nostalgia for the story of the ‘plucky girl from the village.’ But it is clearly an ironic image, as the female ensemble appear behind her, carrying parasols, dancing in sync, as Mendoza’s voice soars into the chorus: ‘I know that when my number’s up / When I am sent to God above / Don’t have my name inscribed into the stone / Just say / Here lies love.’

The platforms of David Korin’s set function almost as runways in a fashion show, as those on the dance floor are forced to look up at the performers above. The costume changes are lightning quick (in one number Imelda and Ferdinand’s wedding clothes are literally ripped off to reveal matching polka-dot swimming costumes). As the musical progresses Imelda slips further into despotism, but the performance always keeps her emotional life and psychological interiority at bay. The public persona is what matters and the power of the production comes from the way it seduces the audience into Imelda’s managed world. We are metaphorically being handed 100 peso notes from her bodyguard, and we accept them. The song ‘Solano Avenue’ is a good example of the negotiation of the ‘real’ through the theatrical. In it, Imelda confronts her old friend and maid Estrella Cumpas (Gia Macuja Atchinson), who raised her as a child, about an interview Estrella has given on TV (the song is literally about Imelda trying to manage her public persona). The lyrics skew towards the maudlin (‘When they teased you on the street / When they hurt you deep inside / To me it was that you came running / And I held you when you cried’), but it is staged as song, with choreography that reminds the audience of R&B classics such as Brandy and Monica’s ‘The Boy Is Mine.’ Throughout the show the audience’s emotional investment is held at bay, that is until the final moments, as a blunt, bare, and shattering coup-de-theatre allows the voices of the People’s Power Revolution (EDSA Revolution) to be heard.

Through its excess of theatricality the show becomes Imelda’s life as she believes it to be, as a theatre of beauty, and love. But throughout this theatrical manipulation, a counter narrative emerges, as Dean John-Wilson’s Ninoy Aquino moves from a charismatic popstar to a much more naturalistic performance towards his assassination.

Theatricality and Politics

Defining what ‘theatricality’ specifically is can be difficult. We generally think of it in pejorative terms—something showy, over-the-top, not simply doing, nor (as Richard Schechner would put it) ‘showing doing’, but really showing doing. It is the exclamation point on the end of the sentence. It is the surplus sitting between the signifier and its reception by an audience. As writers such as Hans Thies-Lehmann and Samuel Weber have conceived of it, perhaps it the quality of excess itself that cannot be contained by representation.

'A Parthenon for Imelda' - the enormous CCP (Cultural Centre of the Philippines)
‘A Parthenon for Imelda’ – the enormous CCP (Cultural Centre of the Philippines)
The Manila Film Centre, said to be haunted by 129 workers whose bodies were encased in the concrete foundations after an accident.
The Manila Film Centre, said to be haunted by 129 workers whose bodies were encased in the concrete foundations after an accident. 

Theatricality as excess mattered (matters) to Imelda Marcos, in ways both metaphorically and quite literal. As Governor of Manila, she reshaped the sprawling metropolis into one that would project a modern face to the Philippines and attract the flows of capital. Part of this project was the construction of The Cultural Centre of the Philippines (CCP), a building that ran 35 million pesos over budget and was finished with the assistance of U.S. loans of around 7 million USD. The Manila Film Centre (part of the complex) is said to be the most haunted building in the Philippines due to an accident wherein during its construction 169 workers fell and were buried in quick-drying cement, their bodies still into the foundations to this day. (Appearance is accompanied by disappearance). For Marcos, the performing arts were essential to showcasing the face of the Philippines, and this building, what Aquino called ‘A Parthenon to Imelda’ was part of the theatre of global politics. In a similar oscillation of appearance/disappearance, Marcos’ reinvention of Metro Manila created, according to Cultural Studies scholar Neferti X. M. Tadiar, an archipelago of islands connected by flyovers. These flyovers both allow traffic to pass directly over the barrios but also serve to illustrate the new way residents of Manila were to imagine themselves and to perform: as discrete selves, in flows of traffic within a free flow of commerce. The fact that, as anyone who has been to Manila knows, these flyovers and new highways immediately became choked and blocked with traffic is perhaps an ideal illustration of the contradictions of neoliberalism.

Manila flyovers
Manila flyovers 

The point however, is that theatre is not just ‘show’ for the Marcos regime but an actual strategy of politics. As Tadiar writes:

In its bid to join the international community of advanced nations, the Marcos regime launched a program of economic development that was export-oriented and foreign-capital-dependent. To attract foreign investments, it built five-star hotels, an international convention centre, a cultural centre, specialised medical centres, and numerous other “beautification projects”, all under the supervision of the MMC. […] Hence, although the city was Imelda’s personal domestic showcase, it was beautified for the eyes and pleasure of foreigners and to attract the flow of foreign capital. (Tadiar 1995: 298).

If we consider the specifics of the history of the Marcoses, then, if we extricate ourselves from a colonialist narrative of third-world dictatorship and first-world democracy, we see that the theatre of politics that the Marcoses created was highly seductive. It was a theatre that the West, also, was deeply imbricated in. This is why the excess of theatricality of the immersive musical form is both allegory and vehicle for communicating the affective nature of populism, something that either the more realist ‘book-musical’ or naturalist representation cannot properly capture. The gimmick is to tell this history as a disco. The coup is to show that it really was disco.

Here Lies Love’s concept also ties into several aspects of Filipino performance. While the immersive dance floor experience is reportedly a nod to the fact that Imelda converted one of her New York properties into a disco, it also resonates with the very popular forms of variety television in the Philippines – shows such as Party Pilipinas, ASAP and Eat Bulaga, which feature music (including many covers of US hits), comedy and other ‘acts.’ The party atmosphere of these programmes show a pleasure in performance, the labour of ‘being theatrical’, putting on a show. This is also evident in the history of ‘serious’ theatre companies in the Philippines, such as the Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA), which was actively anti-Marcos, which employ a wider palette of theatrical tools than our categories in the UK might often allow. This includes, for example, the use of pop music and dance in a show about Overseas Foreign Workers (The Silent Soprano, 2007-2008), which Anril Tiatco writes about in a 2013 article for Asian Theatre Journal. The multi-disciplinary and ‘variety’ aspect of all these performance forms seem to inform the frenetic excess of Here Lies Love, which borrows from both Western modes of music and dance as well as at times seeming to borrow the gestural vocabulary and arm positions of traditional Philippine dance forms such as tinikling and singkil. 

Rather more deeply, I also want to argue that Here Lies Love resonates with Philippine theatre scholar Doreen Fernandez’s concept of palabas. In Tagalog, palabas simply means ‘show’ or performance, but Fernandez points out that labas means ‘outside.’ Palabas can therefore mean ‘performance’ but also ‘outwardness’, an outwardly directed energy that, as Fernandez suggests, begins from the individual (actor) but radiates out to the community. Here Lies Love is an entirely palabas show: showy, but all about the ensemble; centred on the authoritative central performance of Mendoza but tied to the sociality of the dance floor.

So what is the point that this excess of theatricality makes? For me, the refusal of the realist representation is also a refusal of the traditional way by which the narrative of the colonizer/colonized is rehearsed and staged. A realist representation—even one which focused on the heroes of the People’s Power Revolution—gets caught in a narrative trap in which the third world needs saving. What Here Lies Love, with its all-East Asian cast, does instead is bring the agency of East Asian characters, and more importantly, East Asian actor to the stage. The theatrical excess refuses a regime of representation by which the East Asian actor is becomes only a signifier for Otherness. It highlights the craft and skill of the ensemble, foregrounding the labour of their performance, the craft of constructing the spectacle.[1]

Since 2010, Imelda Marcos has been a member of the Philippine House of Representatives under the government of President Benigno Aquino III, Ninoy’s son. According to a friend in Manila, the Marcos mythology is currently experiencing resurgence, with their image again becoming quite chic, a testament to the power of the politics of appearance. One might expect Here Lies Love, for all its showy excess, might perform this same chicification. In the end, it is because of its theatricality, that it does exactly the opposite.


[1] A related point is the way that these East Asian characters really trouble stereotypes. This is particularly the case in its depiction of East Asian masculinity in the characters of Ferdinand Marcos (Mark Bautista) and Ninoy Aquino, which are as far from the asexual stereotype familiar in Western media as you can get.