Friday, November 17, 2006

Water Puppets

Writing this back in Hangzhou on Friday evening after a day's air travel, I still have a vivid memory of last night's entertainment. It was truly unusual.

South-east Asia has a solid puppetry tradition with the Indonesian shadow puppets probably being the most well-known. To me, the Vietnamese water puppets were entirely new. This tradition is rooted in the rice-paddy landscape of the Red River delta where Hanoi and Haiphong are located. Performances would once be given during harvest feasting, celebrating the area's agriculture and fishing, its fauna and folkways. The players crouch in the dark behind a bamboo screen dividing a pool of water, extending garishly painted puppets on long poles under the screen into the well-lit part of the pool overlooked by the audience. Many puppets have movable parts manoeuvred with strings inside the poles.

We caught a performance at the Water Puppet Theatre overlooking Lake Returned Sword, where the same 45-minute show is given five times a day. The audience was almost entirely European in appearance. Stage right, an excellent musical octet in traditional garb played energetic classical Sino-Vietnamese music and acted as chorus. I love live music and was particularly impressed by the flutist and the soprano, one a jovial man of middle age, the other a young woman who looked like she was dying of boredom but who nevertheless sang like a goddess. Most of the speaking parts were performed by the eight invisible puppeteers behind the green screen, topped by a traditional Chinese-style temple.

There didn't seem to be any story to the evening's performance, which was probably wise given the audience's general lack of language comprehension. We were treated to a series of vignettes and skits, many humorous, some mainly demonstrations of the puppeteers' skill and coordination set to music. Dragons frolicked and fought, a swamp cat stole a farmer's duck and the Golden Turtle took the divine sword from the hand of Le Loi. Water sprayed and cascaded, we had fireworks, and the puppets were many and elaborate. Great show, even for a foreigner who knows neither the cultural background nor the language.

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