Days 12-13: 3rd – 4th March 2018: Dragons and Artists
I am at UMAK again today, for a very special event. The University has sponsored an open competition to write and stage a thirty-minute musical based on my epic fantasy, Dragonsong. There are seven finalists, all of which will be performed today.
The day is to start with a parade. Filipinos seem to enjoy parades. I watched more than one last time I was here and anticipate that I shall be treated to a walk-past of the characters from the finalist entries. The parade duly forms up, and begins to move forward. But no, I’m wrong. Instead of sitting while they walk past me, I am taken by the hand by a young lady master (or should it be mistress?) of ceremonies and led to the front of the line. Someone places a sun parasol in my left hand while someone else hands me a bottle of water in my right. I than have the surreal experience of leading the parade of maybe one hundred and fifty or so stage dressed characters around the running track of the university sports arena, while folk in the stands cheer and a professional video is filmed of the whole procedure.
I guess I should be used to surreal experiences while I’m in the Philippines, by now. There’s a sense in which I am as much in character whilst ‘doing’ Michael Forester, as the actors in the parade behind me are. I take continuing care to avoid letting any of this go to my head. I’m still the same ordinary me as has walked upon the earth almost sixty-two years, full of frailty, a past master at making mistakes. Adulation’s a harsh mistress. I will do all in my power to ensure she does not enslave me.
For the afternoon’s main event I arrive at 1.00pm as requested. We are in the 1,000-seater Grand Theatre, so a large crowd is obviously anticipated. But we are on FLT (Filipino Local Time!) and no one is ready to proceed. (Everyone but me, of course, knew that would happen!) We use the time for photo opportunities and book signings. At 1.30pm or so, the theatre darkens and the first performance begins. Seven, thirty-minute dramatic and musical interpretations of Dragonsong follow, each one closely behind the last.
I am seated by the judges, all prominent in their various fields, from academia to popular music. I watch them exchange comments quietly and write furiously. I don’t envy them their job; this is not going to be an easy judgement. Huge effort has been put into every presentation – the costumes, the lighting, the musical interpretation Though the last of these is, of course, inaccessible to me, its absence has no bearing on my enjoyment. I know the plot reasonably well! I am enraptured. Each presentation seems to out-do the last, each display becoming more stunning until the final one, in which some of the artistic interpretations and the dramatic behavioural devices are truly outstanding. And then comes the seventh interpretation of Harmony the Dragon. She is dressed in red, with her face hidden behind a mask.
This alone would be enough. But when the mask is removed, the audience pulls back in their seats as one, gasping in astonishment. There is no question. This IS Harmony. This is precisely how I conceived of her. The actor’s behavioural interpretation, supported by stunning make-up, is perfect.
Later, the young lady concerned does indeed win the award for best actor. I ask if she is set for a dramatic career, for she would surely go far. But no. She is training to be an accountant!
The overall winner is announced. I can only agree with the judges, for the performance overall was superb. The piece went behind the plot of the book and seamlessly entered the realms of author purpose and intent. Bravo, the winning troupe. What a delivery. Prize presentations and photos follow to much clapping. Some six hours later we leave the theatre. I’m zapped.
Fortunately, the next day is a rest day. Dr Pascual offer to accompany me out to see the museum of National Artist, Carlos Francisco, who died in 1969. Given my encounter with the spirit of Jose Rizal when I was in the Philippines last year, I await most keenly to discover what experience this visit will hold. But before we get there, we visit Angono-Binangonan, a site of Neolithic cave carvings, some 4,000 years old.
I learn with interest that it was Carlos Francisco himself, who drew the site to the attention of the National Museum of the Philippines. Then it’s back into the town of Angono. We are taken to the house of the National Artist by motorbike and side-car – a first for me! When in Rome…
At the house, the artwork does indeed strike a chord of artistic excitement but there are no revelations of the scales-falling-from-eyes variety, that I experienced last year with Rizal. Nevertheless, I can understand why Francisco is National Artist.
His works capture in profound emotion the history of the Filipino people. We are conducted round the house by a nice young man whom I take to be the curator. But there’s something more about this man; something I can’t quite pinpoint. We are on the point of leaving, when I see some large canvasses that are clearly work in progress. A much more modern style of art than Francisco’s but this work also has depth and an air of significance. I ask who the artist is. The young man acknowledges the canvasses are his – he is the grandson of the National Artist, also named Carlos Francisco.
I indicate my own identity and a conversation ensues about the common ground between about art and poetry. I leave a gift towards the upkeep of the house, a small enough sum for the enjoyment I have been offered today. Carlos is taken aback. In return he gives me a poetry collection by local poets. It is in Filipino but Dr Pascual offers to translate some for me.
We return to the city by minibus for the princely sum of 45 pesos per person (about £0.70). Tomorrow we prepare to leave for the provinces. We are bound for Camarines Sur.