Evita Peron (1919 – 1952) was known as the Queen of Hearts and died tragically of cervical cancer at the age of 33. A curious combination of Mrs Thatcher and the Virgin Mary, Evita Peron was adored by the Argentine masses, the so called Descamisados or shirtless ones.
She was the first of the actors turned political leaders to rally the people against the elite. Actors are good at this because politics is essentially show business. She was followed by President Ronald Regan (actor), Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher (like Evita from a humble background) and President Donald Trump (remember he played a bit part in the movie “Lost in New York”) reality TV star. Mrs Thatcher loved the show Evita, she saw it many times and frequently sneaked in unannounced just to hear “Don’t Cry for me Argentina” and Donald Trump has gone on the record as saying that Evita is his favourite Broadway show and that he had seen it six times. For many reasons, Evita Peron is an utterly fascinating political and psychological personality. She has become the poster girl for authoritarian populists speaking directly to the people over the heads of the out of touch elites all over the world.
The production now showing at the Open Air Theatre Regent’s Park tells her story in the best possible way. Through music, spectacle, singing and dancing, it recreates the key milestones on her journey from 15 year old night club hostess to her death 18 years later in 1952 as de facto Vice President of Argentina. Her story combines both triumph and tragedy and this is cleverly hinted at in Soutra Gilmour’s stunning stage set.
In giant letters EVITA is emblazoned across the back of the stage but each letter is scorched as if in the aftermath of a fire. As if her name is up in lights but all the fuses have blown. This snakes and ladders-esque double movement is further suggested by the steps that dominate the stage. Like the grand old Duke of York she marches up and down, in her case not a hill but steps, in a frantic but ultimately futile search for glory.
On her way up the greasy pole Evita (the wonderful Samantha Pauly) displays a cold ruthlessness and calculating ambition which is chillingly insouciant and surprisingly amusing. As in “Goodnight And Thank You” in which she curtly dismisses her first lover Agustin Magaldi (the excellent Adam Pearce), now that she doesn’t need he anymore. This ruthless ambition is given a brilliant visual image as Evita walks on the backs of her adoring lovers and friends literally trampling them underfoot on her way up.
The unstoppable rise of Evita is expressed in both the pulsating rhythms of the music and the dynamic dancing from the chorus. As Evita and Juan Peron (Ektor Rivera, superb) get it on in “I’d Be Surprisingly Good For You”, two dancers on the step above dance the tango as a visual equivalent of the song’s struggle between two formidable protagonists who recognise that in each other they have met their match. It’s the thrilling equivalent of synchronised swimming on stage. Evita is refreshingly challenging. A chorus girl takes off silk knickers, holds them to her nose, smells them joyously and proceeds to throws them at the hapless singer Agustin Magaldi. A black child (Chani Owusu-Ansah) dressed all in white and wearing a blonde wig sings to Evita that, although she is aware that Evita calls her a black, she wants to be like her and adores her. This reminded me of Donald Trump making racist remarks about Baltimore but then having Jay Z and Beyoncé round to the White House. Such are the contradictions of populism. Ultimately populism is an emotional movement which works by appealing to the feelings and emotions. Evita understood this and this is best realised of course in the global popularity of this shows signature song “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”.
But for me the real power and appeal of Populism is in the razzmatazz of music, singing, flag waving crowds, bunting, ticker tape parades, pomp and circumstance. This is evident every year in the Last Night of the Proms. The number which does it for this show is for me “A New Argentina” whereby all the ingredients of populism are combined to create a feeling of one between people and the adored leader of her people: Evita on the balcony of the Casa Rosada.
Review by John O’Brien.