That’s how I introduced Tony Mabesa when I wrote a feature on his then-upcoming production of “Hamlet Redux” in December last year. His last directorial work for Dulaang UP before “Hamlet Redux” was “Gabriela, an Oratorio,” which I chided in my review for being “neither particularly about Gabriela Silang nor an oratorio.” Meeting him for an interview months later meant, as you could imagine, being nervous as hell, given Mr. Mabesa’s fiery reputation. Would he upbraid me for my upstart opinions? Would he bark at me and cut me down to size?
I had worried needlessly. Mr. Mabesa turned out to be a charming interviewee, overflowing with wit, practical observations and sparkling anecdotes culled from his 50 years of authoritative work in theater, film and television. An august presence with his imposing frame and trademark basso profundo, he was also wry and matter-of-fact about his distinguished career. (Part 1 of the three-hour interview is posted below.)
Just three weeks ago, Mr. Mabesa received the “Gawad Pinakamaningning na Alagad ng Sining” from the province of Laguna for his lifelong toil in local theater. At 69 years old, he has chalked up over 150 plays, some 100 movies and TV shows, and countless hours spent coaching, coaxing, goading Filipino artists to give their best in every performance. There’s no stopping him yet, it seems. Good for us.
You’ve done extensive work in both theater and film. How are they different from each other?
Let’s use Cherie Gil as an example, whom I saw as the Baroness in Repertory Philippines’ “The Sound of Music” last year. Cherie was wonderful onstage, I loved her. She had such a strong presence, though I thought she still had to develop that inner energy that stage actors have. See, most film stars who go into theater don’t have it. Liesl Batucan had it--she even reminded me of Mary Martin [the original Maria Von Trapp].
Ang training sa movies kasi, you work for the camera. If it’s an extreme close-up, for example, you don’t do anything with your face, eyes, etc. Film actors are trained to hold back; they’re good at interiority, that sense of truth. If they don’t act truthfully, it would be picked up by the camera.
There was a time when Behn Cervantes was doing this play with one of our senior film actresses, who tended to act from the neck up. (Laughter) She didn’t know what to do with her hands, so Behn gave her a shawl. That took care of it.
Your last major directorial work was “Hamlet Redux” for Dulaang UP late last year. How was that experience?
I was happy with it. I think the audience ate it up. I really wanted more accessibility for this play, though for some people--it was either you liked it or you didn’t. Ang mga bata, I think they liked it, so I’m happy about that.
The ending had Hamlet and Laertes fighting kung-fu “Matrix”-style, instead of the usual swordfight. Why?
I’ve seldom seen onstage a rapier fight that worked. The actors are not equipped for it. Plus, the small stage of Guerrero Theater didn’t allow for that kind of movement.
But where’d you get the kung-fu idea?
I’d been seeing a lot of Asian movies lately! (Laughter)
Alam mo naman kasi ang ending ng “Hamlet,” so melodramatic, everybody dying, very Jacobean. I was thinking, eto na naman, what do we do with this? Somebody suggested, “Mag-arnis na lang tayo,” but that had been done two or three years ago. So sabi ko, i-try natin martial arts combined with black theater.
The black-light theater was, of course, an old tradition in Czechoslovakia. I was there in 2003 and watched a performance like that. It can turn gimmicky after a while, but I was thinking that, for most students, it was their first time to see something like that. Kaya pumapalakpak sila, tuwang-tuwa sila doon! It meant more to them. Kaya, o siya, sige, I’ll cater! At this point in my life I’ll cater! (Laughter)
What about the voiceover of the dead king?
I patterned that after a “Hamlet” I saw in New York starring Richard Burton and directed by John Gielgud. Burton did his Hamlet in rehearsal clothes! It was quite a sensation, and a commercial production. It ran for 128 performances in NY, which is quite a record for a Shakespearean play. The king didn’t appear in that version, just the voice, and it was Gielgud saying the lines of the ghost.
Who’s the better Shakespearean actor for you, Gielgud or Laurence Olivier?
I think it’s a matter of taste. (Laughter) Si Gielgud was very lyrical, nobody could beat him in the delivery of lines. The great tradition of English actors--beautiful, mellifluous voice--kay Gielgud yan. Si Olivier naman, more earthy, more quote-unquote realistic. Of the actors that followed them, si Paul Scofield and Richard Burton sana ang rivals, but Burton was very soon grabbed by Hollywood. Wala na.
I’ve seen these actors only in films. Have you seen them in a live performance?
I saw Paul Scofield as Lear. Ang galing! I saw it when I was still studying in the US. I’d take this student tour to Europe every summer and watch every play I could. Panood nang panood ako niyan, kahit tight budget lagi! (Laughter)
What’s the most memorable play you saw in your youth?
Quite a few. “Marat/Sade” with Glenda Jackson as Charlotte Corday, in London. Maggie Smith as Hedda Gabler, with her looong English neck. (Laughter) “Hedda Gabler” is the “Hamlet” for women. Theatrical lore says actors should do “Hamlet” before their 30s, and actresses the Hedda Gabler character. Maggie Smith was just beautiful, she was like alabaster, very pale, very English that way. It was a production by Ingmar Bergman no less, directed for the National Theater in London.
Of the generations of theater people who trained with you in Dulaang UP, Irma Adlawan and Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino are often mentioned as the crown jewels. Do you agree?
Oh, yeah! Si Irma, I saw her in flag ceremony around here. Sabi ko sa kanya, “Iha, ano ang major mo?” “Speech and Drama, sir”--
What attracted you to her? What told you that she could act?
(Long pause) Ewan ko! (Laughter) Basta I was casting for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that time, this was 1983, and I told her to go to the audition. She came, and ‘yun na. Ay naku, crystal-clear ang English! She hadn’t acted at all yata before that, but she became the toast after. Meanwhile, may girlfriend si Dennis Marasigan noon who was into Production. I told his girlfriend, “Pumunta ka sa rehearsal ko, at aagawin sa’yo ng bagong artista ko si Dennis Marasigan!” Ayun, nagkatotoo nga! (Laughter)
But they do come in waves. Sina Irma and Shamaine were the wave of actresses. Later on, there was a wave of directors naman, sina Aureaus Solito, Paul Morales, si Clint Ramos who took his MFA in Design at New York University. Now he’s designing in Sweden’s opera houses, sa Israel... Ang galing-galing nun!
Where’d you get the eye for spotting talent? And what qualities do you look for?
There are people kasi na gusto mong tingnan. For me, an actor should be somebody that you’d like to look at. There are plays where you look at only one actor, you follow him because there’s something about him, or her--that X-factor or whatever. I’ve discovered some actors who were just walking here along the hallways.
Have you ever cast somebody who was interesting-looking but who turned out to be a poor actor?
Oh yeah, many times! You are very kind with your words! (Laughter) You see, this is an academic theater, we’re here to train people. If they come to audition, and there are enough roles, we take the risk. It’s not easy to audition, you know, so I give them the chance--unless totally hopeless talaga. I bring them in, they can play the Puta 1, Puta 2 or Puta 3, or Manggagawa 1 or Manggagawa 2. (Laughter)
What basic qualities should an actor have?
They don’t have to be really beautiful or handsome, just that they have that extra something. Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero called it “personaleete.” “He has no personaleete,” he would say. (Laughter) More than anything, I like actors who are hungry to learn, who can work with other people, who are not difficult. I’d rather work with a less talented but hardworking actor than one with airs. Diyos ko, ambabata pa me “aire” na, teka muna! I tell them, “Huwag kayo ganyan, malayo pa lalakbayin ninyo!”
How do you deal with talents like that?
I tell them straight to their faces! That’s the advantage of being older! (Laughter) Cut them down to size! “O, ikaw ha, nag-uumpisa ka pa lang, napakalaki na ng ulo mo! Ang mga sumisikat, the great ones, they have humility.” That’s what one has to develop as an artist--humility. If you want to stay long in theater or the performing arts, have humility. I tell them, “Galangin ninyo ang teatro. Trabaho ‘to! The theater is your altar. Hindi ito picnic.”
Wouldn’t you say that’s a built-in attribute among most artists, a certain kind of madness that--
Oh, I love madness! In fact, when they ask me what is necessary for the theater, I say, passion and madness. Lalo na dito sa atin na ang hirap to practice theater. What I don’t like is what is called “arestrada” in Spanish-- “mucho arestrada.” Pa-artsy-fartsy! ‘Yan ang ayoko.
But theater is full of people with big drives and egos and personalities, right?
Yes, we always attract people who are kind of dislocated or disturbed! It’s very common, and I say, hay naku, I’m not fazed by you, because I have a master’s degree in Special Education. (Laughter) Seriously, those who work hard and go beyond being flashy are the ones who last long and make a name for themselves, rather than yung mga maaarte, those with a chip on their shoulder--“I’m an artiste!,” yung mga ganyan! (Laughter)
With self-indulgent students, naku, I bring them down to earth. “Huwag kayong ganyan, tanggalin ninyo yan! ‘I’m an artiste?’ Hindi, trabaho lang ‘to, kumayod kayo!” (Laughter)
(To be continued)
[photo 2: Niña Catherine Calleja/PDI]