VietNamNet Bridge – The latest show by theatre director Viet Tu, performed on a 1.5 hectare lake, has broken new ground in more ways than one.
|Making a splash: 140 local farmers and other residents villagers of the Da Phuc Village in Sai Son Commune are performers in The Quintissence of Tonkin, a show directed by Viet Tu. – Photos courtesy of the show’s producer|
For one, it has humans perform roles played by puppets in traditional water puppetry shows.
Then, it uses actual farmers who till the fields, whose life is depicted by the art of water puppetry, to play the roles.
The play is a vivid cultural exploration of wet rice cultivation, which has not just fed people, but also created the Red River civilisation of Viet people.
Titled Thuo Ay Xu Doai or The Quintessence of Tonkin, the one-hour play amazed audiences when it was staged on a 1.5ha lake in Ha Noi’s Sai Son Commune.
The commune is located in Ha Noi’s suburban district of Quoc Oai, called Xu Doai in the old days.
Tu said the play was inspired by Viet Nam’s water puppetry.
“Vietnamese water puppetry is very well known. Almost every foreign tourist coming to Viet Nam has to see a show. However, I didn’t want to create something similar to what exists. Instead, in my show, the humans perform and replace the characters of the puppets.”
Tu has a reputation for doing things differently.
His Four Palaces, an artistic interpretation of hau dong, a traditional ritual in which a medium is possessed by several deities, was highly acclaimed by both domestic and foreign audiences when it was released at the end of 2015.
For his latest play, 140 locals, farmers and residents of the Da Phuc Village in Sai Son Commune, have become performers.
“During the day, they are farmers working in their fields, and in the night, they become different characters in the show.
“I was very moved, and highly appreciate the effort they’ve put in to rehearse the play for almost on year.”
The show has many lively scenes that show the daily life of farmers, including tilling the soil and sowing rice. Herdsman play the flute, children fly kites or and real ducks swimming in the lake. Bamboo planted by the lake adds to the authenticity that The Quintessence of Tonkin tries to achieve.
The audience has been amazed with the thuy dinh (pavilion on water), which is a life-size replica of the one built during the Ly Dynasty (1010 – 1225) on the village’s Long Chieu Pond.
“The village’s thuy dinh is the place where water puppetry is performed. Monk and zen master Tu Dao Hanh (1072-1116), who spent his life at the Thay Pagoda in the village, is considered the ancestor of this art form. That’s why I want to bring this idea to the show,” Tu said, explaining why he decided to create a 10-tonne replica of thuy dinh.
Based on several famous water puppetry acts, the show opens with the Teu Giao Dau (The Prelude of Teu). Local life in Xu Doai is reproduced on the stage with puppetry acts like Duoi Cao Bat Vit (Expell Fox and Catch Duck), Ngu Ong (Fisherman), Chim Loan Phuong (The Phoenix).
In between the puppet scenes, farmers perform Nang Som (Early Morning Sunlight), Dao Lieu or the artistic demonstration of a village festival and vinh qui bai to – a tradition since the 15th century, which is the homecoming of a successful graduate greeted by a jubilant village. The extravagant procession and ceremony highlights the sweat and tears needed to achieve such honours.
With the stage on water, the replica of thuy dinh and a modern laser lighting system creating amazing effects, The Quintessence of Tonkin is a striking visual feast.
Historian Duong Trung Quoc heaped praise on the show, saying: “The producer and director have invested not only in a new stage concept, sounding and lighting system, but in real people. The decision to select local farmers to become performers has struck an emotional chord with the audience, including me.”
Veteran artist Duc Hung of the Thang Long Water Puppetry Theatre said that the traditional puppetry acts have been given a fresh twist by The Quintessence of Tonkin.
“I got goose bumps when I watched the show. I admire director Tu because he has used a very creative way to tell the cultural story of Xu Doai 1,000 years ago.”
From now until September 30, The Quintessence of Tonkin will be staged from Friday to Sunday every week, starting from 7.30pm. For ticket information, please call 0904567766. Ticket promotion: Buy 1 get 1 until September 30.
|Musical scene: A farmer acts as a herdsman playing the flute in The Quintessence of Tonkin.
Grand welcome: An enactment of the vinh qui bai to, a procession traditionally held when a successful graduate returns to his village.
Life in the field: Water puppets depict wet rice cultivation.
Historical restoration: A thuy dinh (pavilion on water), which is a life-size replica of the one built during the Ly Dynasty (1010 – 1225) on the village’s Long Chieu Pond, has been set up on the stage built on a 1.5-hectare lake.
|The Quintessence of Tonkin is the first show in Viet Nam presented on a stage set up on a 1.5-hectare lake with a real-life background.|
What gave you the idea for a show like The Quintessence of Tonkin?
I’ve always maintained the habit of traveling all over the world to see new things, to observe other cultures and find new ideas for future projects. After years of visiting many art centres all over the world, I have nurtured a dream to produce a series of my own art shows dedicated to traditional Vietnamese art forms so that foreigners can appreciate the beauty of Vietnamese culture.
So the first show of the series, called Tu Phu or Four Palaces premiered at the end of 2015. This was an artistic interpretation of hau dong, a traditional ritual in which a medium is possessed by several deities.
The Quintessence of Tonkin follows the first one. It was produced with investment from the Tuan Chau Group.
This was the first ever show in Viet Nam presented on a stage set up on a 1.5-hectare lake with a real-life background. Why did you decide that water puppetry would be the core of the show?
I can say that I grew up amidst lacquered puppets because my mother is a puppetry artist with the State Puppetry Theatre. Since I was a little boy, she took me with her to every corner of the Red River Delta to meet artistes of different traditional art forms like puppetry, cheo (traditional opera), and tuong (classical drama). Naturally, all these cultural values have been absorbed into my blood. Later on, it was mixed with modern ideas of a person who has spent many years studying and living abroad.
Another reason is that Sai Son Commune in Ha Noi’s suburban district of Quoc Oai, where The Quintessence of Tonkin has been staged, is the birthplace of water puppetry.
Monk and zen master Tu Dao Hanh (1072-1116), who spent his life at the Thay Pagoda in the village, is considered the ancestor of this art form. That’s why I decided to choose water puppetry as the core of my show. However, presenting a traditional art form in a modern style is tough.
|Theatre director Viet Tu.|
The show has wowed audiences with several surprising details including a life-size 10-tonne replica of the Thuy dinh (pavilion on water) resurfacing on the lake. How could you do this?
I have to thank the investor, who agreed to support the creation of a replica of the original thuy dinh which was built during the Ly Dynasty (1010-1225) on the village’s Long Chieu Pond. The investor agreed despite the high expenditure involved.
Modern technology, including the use of elevators, also made this possible. Despite bearing the huge water pressure at a depth of 10 metres, the replica has to emerge within 1.5 minutes, and to move stably every day.
Apart from directing the show, you are also the one who decided on the outline of the stage, the surrounding space with bamboo and clay tile-roofed house. Do you also act as a landscape designer?
It is not far off to say that I am the only one who knows exactly what we need for the show, but my team and I worked together to produce a complete outline for the area that I named “the Northern village cultural space”. It’s a stage with real-life background, making my show unique and different with others. It vivifies the show significantly.
Many people have said that no one but you have the ability to create such a marvellous show, and it is rumoured that it cost several million dollars. How could you persuade the investor to back such a venture?
Soon after we met, we agreed that our goal would be to create a high-quality cultural production that can promote the beauty of Vietnamese culture to foreigners.
|Inspired by the Viet Nam’s traditional water puppetry art form, The Quintessence of Tonkin has been staged by more than 100 farmers and villagers.|
I’m lucky that the investor also approved my idea to turn 140 local farmers and villagers to be performers. They are the ones who truthfully bring the soul of a Red River Delta village into the show. I’m sure that the show wouldn’t have succeeded without them.
You are a pioneer in presenting unique shows. You presented contemporary art and video art in concert, Nhat Thuc (Eclipse) of diva Ha Tran in 2002, then the four-act ‘fashion play’ Con Ac Mong Cua Nguoi Tho May (The Dressmaker’s Nightmare) in 2006, and now this? Do you feel the pressure of having to do something new all the time, of being a pioneer?
I don’t think so. Instead, I look to turn this so-called pressure to be a motivation that challenges and pushes me to work harder. Wherever I go and whenever I return to Viet Nam, I see a “sea” of opportunities in the country’s rich culture to be creative.