Miguel Castro (Ibarra)

NOLI ME TANGERE is a new Australian musical based on the novel, of the same name, by iconic Filipino nationalist and hero Dr. José Rizal, that inspired a nation during the tail end of the Spanish colonial period of the Philippines ‘The Noli’ (as it is called in the Philippines) was the “first major artistic expression of Asian defiance to European colonialism” and is now widely known as the great novel of the Philippines.

As we are at Riverside Theatres quite often and have been watching how many people pick up the flyer for the show to discuss it with curiosity and interest we wanted to bring our readers some insights into a new grand musical.  The Guide had the chance to put some questions to Miguel Castro who plays  Ibarra and Susana Downes, playing Maria Clara.

Susana Downes (Maria Clara)

SAG:            Can I begin by speaking about the origins?  The original ‘Noli Me Tangere’ is from the late 19th century, what is significance of the story to modern Filipinos?

SUSANA:    It’s a story that my mum studied while at school! I think everyone that goes to school in the Philippines studies the novel as it’s such a national treasure! For me, as I went to school in Australia, I don’t have the same connection that she did, but it’s a story that really ties me in to my Filipino roots and I get to know the history of the Spanish colonisation of the Philippines!

MIGUEL:     It is  the first novel of our National Hero Jose Rizal. It is so important that it is part of our High school curriculum, together with its sequel, El Filibusterismo.

Personally, the struggle presented in the play by the characters are still the same struggles in modern Manila Philippines. Only this time, we re not fighting colonizers. The fight is among ourselves. Among the people of power driven by greed of both power and money. These “culprits” are continuously ruling Philippines. Question is the same , do we fight this by educating Filipino masses to have a better understanding of who to put on government positions? Or driving the an almost syndicated group of people out of their power, and start anew?

SAG:             What themes will resonate with modern Sydney Theatre-goers?

MIGUEL:      Love in a universal sense. May it be love for the country and family.

SUSANA:      There are so many amazing themes! One of the main ones is the love theme between Ibarra and Maria Clara, and who doesn’t love a love story! There’s also the patriotism of the Philippines, and what people will do for their country! There’s also the controversy of the Church, which is very relevant in the media recently.

SAG:               It’s sung in English rather than Tagalong and the video suggests a traditional orchestra, I’m wondering what Philippines influences will strike the ear.

SUSANA:       I’m so thankful to be singing it in English! That helps us spread the story to everyone that sits in the theatre, not just anyone who can understand Tagalog. I feel like the Filipino influences are all in the lyrics, talking about the love for the country.

MIGUEL:        I think the music used in this play is more like an experimental fusion. There is no filipino flavor in the music, which makes it very interesting. A broadway type of music, as I would describe it makes it universally relateable, but at the same time bringing you to a Philippine  era very new to audiences, since not much Filipino themed productions are presented by an all Australian theatre company. Not done as well (in my knowledge, being a stage actor for almost 30 years, and doing Noli Me Tangere-Kanser in Filipino for almost 20 of those years) in Manila, a broadway type , and in English Noli Me Tangere, will be a “fingers crossed” kind of thing.

SAG:                When audiences leave, what song will they be humming do you think?

MIGUEL:          “Could I Ever Forget You .”

SUSANA:          I always have “God’s Universe” stuck in my head at the end of the day! But I feel like the true “theme song” of the show is “Sweet Sweet Land”, our version of a love song to the Philippines.

SAG:                   Are the setting, costumes etc in a period style?  It’s a lush and dramatic story.

SUSANA:          They are! I’m so excited to get to wear traditional Filipiniana! I’ve worn them before while being a part of the Miss Philippines-Australia pageant, but actually getting to sing and perform in it completely changes how I perform the role when I’m just in my street clothes.

MIGUEL:           Experimental as well. We met some challenges like; no genuine looking weapon is allowed, as a rule in NSW productions, so we will mime most of the gun firing scenes. I volunteered to assist in acquiring costumes to ensure that authentic Filipino designs will be presented, and a well known Stage Costume designer has designed the key costumes that Pinoys will look after with high expectations. Stage design is generally suggestive. As I have said this aims to suit a general audience taste. Even though it is a period Filipino musical, it does not mean that it will cater only to Filipino audience.

SAG:                   What a wonderfully diverse cast you have.  When I was teaching tertiary performance courses in the 80’s my students of Asian descent were rarely offered auditions that weren’t sex workers or gang heavies.  Things are better, but does a production like ‘Noli Me Tangere’ serve to showcase artists away from the Miss Saigon model?

MIGUEL:             Definitely. The lead character mainly is a highly educated  globe trotting Filipino. And though it’s a fictional character, it is believed that it mirrors the author, for he was actually educated in Europe. And yes not too many Asian characters are presented in cerebral or intelligent , thought provoking dialogues, about education and politics.

SUSANA:               It is such an incredibly opportunity for Asian performers! It’s something new and fresh and another representation of the country. As much as I love Miss Saigon (I’ve done it twice), but it’s the WHOLE CAST that is so diverse, not just half.

SAG:                       Thank you so much for your time, I am excited to see the production. One last question: If they don’t know about the cultural background and importance of the original book, would you encourage audience members to do a bit of reading before attending?  Or is the production best enjoyed as a new experience and gateway into the themes and history?

SUSANA:             I definitely think a bit of research into the show is super important! I wouldn’t go all the way into finding out the whole story if you don’t want to be spoiled, but research to have a better understanding of who the characters are, what the time setting is will definitely help the audience!

MIGUEL:            Honestly I have never read a  digested English version of Noli Me Tangere. As an actor, I read and used the first translation (in the vernacular) of the book. They say much was disregarded in disgested versions. I would say yes. Just maybe to prepare them for what they are about to see.

For Filipinos, the original direct translation is online. I found one, free to download. And it was a treat reading it.

McFadden Music will present NOLI ME TANGERE [Facebook]  at Parramatta Riverside Theatres, March 29 – April 6.

I can highly recommend the song, Sweet Sweet Land, which was recently released on iTunes and you can also see a video trailer for the show on YouTube.