A Watery Waltz With Hanoi's Famed Puppets
Hanoi. It was 3 p.m. I walked briskly from Hoan Kiem Lake to Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, located in the heart of old Ha Noi. The attendant at the ticket counter told me the ticket for the 4.10 p.m. show had sold out, although shortly after she asked me how many people I was booking for. “Just one,” I replied. She told me they had one seat left and I gave her one 100,000 Vietnamese dong ($4.50) bill and went happily with a ticket in hand.
Close to 4 p.m., I approached the theater that was built in 1969. Its facade looks simple. Here, the water puppet show is performed five times a day with the first show starting at 3 p.m. Inside, the air conditioned room was crowded by both the tourists and local people.
My seat was a few rows away from the front row, giving me a full view of the 4x4 square-meter water stage. Its backdrop is a two-tiered roof of a Chinese-inspired house with a large curtain in the middle. Next to the water stage is a higher platform where musicians and female singers sit.
The musicians, mainly men, play traditional instruments such as drums, wooden bells, cymbals and harps. All artists wear traditional Vietnamese dresses. The performance is tuned perfectly to match the live music. The water puppetry was traditionally shown during the day and drums were used as instruments.
At the start, an emcee gave an introduction in English about the water puppet show as well as the story to be played. Water puppetry is a folk art in Vietnam. The emcee explained that in Vietnamese it’s called múa rối nước (the puppets that dance in the water).
Dating back to the 11th century, it was performed in the villages in Red River Delta in North Vietnam. The villagers created water puppetry for entertainment after the rice harvest when religious festivals were celebrated. In the past, it was played during the day without words.
Water puppetry displays the strong connection between the Vietnamese people and nature. This is especially the case as paddy fields hold great meaning for the livelihood of Vietnamese people. The paddy fields thus served a dual purpose and was also used as a stage for water puppetry.
The performance which was entirely held in Vietnamese was opened with traditional music. The performance had 14 scenes of 400 repertoire consisting of ancient Vietnamese puppetry. The subject matter of the shows included daily activities in the rural parts of Vietnam, historical events and ancient legends.
Water serves as an excellent stage for the puppets, being able to disguise the rods and strings that support the puppets. Additionally, the different color lights reflect beautifully on the water.
Each scene presents different kinds of puppets depending on the story. There were, for example, dragon, buffalo, frog, ducks, unicorn as well as farmers and music players. Each scene depicts unique acts of puppets.
The puppets were made of light and durable wood, hand carved into different animals or people. The puppets are painted with five layers of lacquer paint, designed to protect the wooden puppets from the water. Meanwhile, the puppeteers stand behind the curtain in waist-deep water.
In the past, as a result of standing in the water, the puppeteers would suffer from cold feet, water borne diseases, rheumatism and even being bitten by leeches. To protect them from these common difficulties, puppeteers in Hanoi theaters are now instructed to wear waders to protect themselves.
The 50-minute performance with 14 scenes runs fast.
The Thang Long Water Puppet collaboration have performed in other countries and attended international art festivals in Europe, Australia, Latin America as well as in Asian countries.Tags: