Water puppetry comes full circle in new play
Update: Jun 20, 2017
The latest show by theatre director Viet Tu, performed on a 1.5 hectare lake, has broken new ground in more ways than one.

140 local farmers and other residents 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 Hanoi’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 osuccessful 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.