A Steel Butterfly Still Emerging
By Murray Bramwell
13 March 2006
By way of preface to Here Lies Love, David Byrne wonders how people can justify their nastier behaviour to themselves -- but 24 songs and a reprise later, we are still none the wiser.
Imelda Marcos, now 77, was the "Steel Butterfly", the wife and confidante of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos from 1965 until his fall from power in 1986 and death in exile three years later. She is both an interesting subject and an unlikely one, and that is the potential appeal of Byrne's idiosyncratic project. He is proposing that Imelda is no more the sum of her shoes than Jackie Kennedy was just a collection of pillbox hats.
We get plenty of background on the woman who became the wife of president Marcos -- her origins in genteel poverty, her doting nanny Estrella Cumpas, her Scarlett O'Hara determination to get ahead in the world. She wins second prize in a beauty contest and declares herself the winner, rather like Marcos's rigged election. Ferdy courts her in 11 whirlwind days as, destined by fate, they become the king and queen of hearts. Imelda is kitsch and cruel, enterprising and in her handbag diplomacy -- visiting Gaddafi, Kissinger and a string of US presidents -- politically astute.
In a venue set up as part dance club, part conventional theatre, Byrne narrates Imelda's story in a series of off-the-cuff links between songs that are, at once, disarming, unfocused and time-consuming. A barrage of photo images unfolds on the large screen behind the concert stage where an excellent band, featuring percussion and keyboards, supports impressive vocalists Dana Diaz-Tutaan (Imelda), Ganda Suthivarakom (Estrella) and the impish Byrne himself. The songs, while co-written with Fatboy Slim, bear strong Byrne signatures: catchy tunes, punchy rhythms and animated vocals.
But there is little evidence of director Marianne Weems here. Is Byrne's casually consulted clipboard a rejection of the slick narrative connections that are the dreary convention of the usual cabaret biog, or evidence of a show underdone?
The abundance of new songs is a treat for Byrne's admirers, but many cover similar threads in Imelda's early life and her abandonment of the faithful Estrella. The audience is left to make large inferences about the complicity of the US government in the Marcos story and no time to reflect on the downhill ride.
There are intriguing ironies in Byrne's approach to Imelda but we need more perspective and contrast. Here Lies Love is a likeable concert, full of good tunes and unfathomable ambiguities. It may yet be a terrific show, with perceptive themes and liberating anti-theatrical elements, but at the moment, the festival is hosting an uncertain work in progress.