Sunday, 1 May 2011

Hanoi, Theatrical Dictatorship, 22 February - 7 March 2011

This blog is about the performing arts I saw during my time in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh's legacy...

Water Puppetry

Water Puppetry originates from the rural areas of Northern Vietnam along the Red River Delta where villagers would entertain each other by putting on puppet shows during monsoon season when the rice fields were flooded. It dates back for several centuries but has only recently moved into a theatre and onto a stage. There are two main water puppet companies in Vietnam, one in Hanoi and one in Saigon. I went along to the Thang Long Theatre in Hanoi to see the show twice. The first time I saw it, I was amazed by the technique of the performers. How could they stand behind a screen and move their puppets around in front, making them jump through hoops of fire? The auditorium was a fantastic place to be, mainly because the air conditioning units blasted out cold air and reduced my body temperature down to that of a human beings.

The performances depict the day to day lives of typical rural villages including harvesting, fishing and traditional festivals. The performance takes place in a pool where the puppeteers are half submerged behind a screen and manipulate their puppets to move in front making it look as though they are walking on water. A small traditional Vietnamese orchestra accompany the action and play solo pieces including an enticing solo from the Dan Bau musician. The only thing that spoilt the enjoyable show was the amount of people taking photographs with their flash on which ruined the experience as the blast of light illuminated the puppeteers at certain points. A word of advice... If you want to take a photo in a theatre, please turn the flash off and also the stupid sound effects they make as you turn it on and take the photo!

Two days after as I had arranged to meet up with one of my mum's friends, Keith, who had been teaching English in Sihanoukville in Cambodia and was travelling up through Vietnam before he headed home. We headed to a restaurant to eat some dinner before he went to see the performance and the friends I was with were also interested in going so we all joined him. Raymond and Matt saw it as more of a gambling experience as they placed bets on the horse race. I couldn't believe how they actually followed through with the exchange of money at the end! I enjoyed the second time around too and would recommend anyone to come and see it, especially children. Maybe that's why I enjoyed it so much, I'm a big child!

Thuong Opera

For hundreds of years Thuong, or hat boi as it is known is South East Asia, has become an integral part of Vietnamese culture and many ordinary people organise shows to tell folk stories to audiences. This opera style dates back to 1285 when it was reported a Chinese performer, Ly Nguyen Cat was captured and brought to the Dai Viet court at Thang Long which is now Hanoi. It was here that he is believed to have taught Vietnamese court performers the techniques of the Zaju Chinese. The Zaju style and the Vietnamese contemporary style merged to create Thuong Opera. Further development was made when the southern songs from the Hindu kingdom of Champa which the Viets occupied. Tuong opera is reliant on stock characters. Make-up and symbolism and is performed through dance, mime, song and music played on traditional Vietnamese instruments such as the Dan Bau, perhaps my favourite instrument I have seen on my trip so far.

The Dan Bau, or Monochord in English, consists of one steel string stretched across the body which is a hardwood frame and a softwood surface One end of the string is connected to a bamboo tuning peg and the other to the handle which controls pitch and vibrato by pressing and releasing it with your left hand. To play the instrument you pluck the string with a bamboo pick held between your index finger and thumb whilst lightly resting the heel of your hand on different positions of the string to produce different harmonics. It is said that fathers would not let their daughters listen to anyone play the dan bau as it has a very romantic and emotional sound. It is usually used in Tuong Opera to accompany poems or love stories or played as a solo instrument. I first became fascinated with the instrument when I saw a lady play it at the Thang Long Theatre during the water puppet show, the sound was pure and seemed to hold tonal freedom that other instruments don't have which can evoke great emotional feelings as it's magical sound lures you into the story. I had no idea how it was played until nearly two months later on the Mekong Delta when I commandeered a musician and his dan bau and asked him to teach me to relieve my curiosity. The instrument is one of the few instruments that can be said to be of Vietnamese origin.

Tuong theatre went through a period of censorship and was eventually banned during the reign of King Le Thanh Tong from 1460-1497 due to its satirical nature. Theatrical artist were being banished from society and were prevented from any government jobs. It was reintroduced into Vietnamese society during the 1700s under the Nguyen dynasty who were fond of the art form. However, during this time Tuong went through significant changes as the special theatre agency created by the royal court commissioned Chinese actors to improve the genre seeing some conventions from Cantonese Opera being introduced. The modern Tuong Opera hit its popularity peak during the later part of the 19th century under King Tu Duc only to hit a dip during the French colonial period when Vietnamese theatre was westernised and the audiences enthusiasm for Toung diminished.

Following the end of French rule, the communist government established The Vietnam National Tuong Theatre in 1959 to promote Vietnamese theatrical heritage. The company puts on four evening, one hour performances of traditional Tuong Opera per week, one of which I attended. The performance style itself is something I respect a great deal as it doesn't rely on elaborate sets to set the scene and through symbolism encourages the audience to use their own imaginations. The stage is practically empty with maybe a chair or two and props are generally used suggestive symbols denoting where the scene is taking place and who the people are. Heavy make up is also used to characterise the performers and although I cannot tell what the differences mean, people who do can instantly tell the characters personality and social class. The actor-audience relationship is close and there is no hint of a fourth wall creating a barricade which allows interaction which helps the performance grow as the audience are forced to use their own imagination and stimulates the actors' creativity.

The style is said to have mainly remained the same although stories told do change and now include stories such as the Vietnamese fight for independence. I kind of see this as a propaganda tool for the communist government. My one question is, does censorship stunt artistic evolution? I personally cannot see how it wouldn't. Did Britain suffer from the same affect when the Theatrical Licensing Act of the late 1700s saw the Lord Chamberlain censoring every play before it was allowed to be staged? Under censorship, artists are restricted in what they can write about. They can't write about the poor, starving citizens in the countryside that struggle to make any wage, they cannot write about how their corrupt government persecute people who don't agree with their every move. Thus they are subjected to the past and to traditional performance styles. In Britain, playhouses turned to good ol' Shakespeare as the plays weren't censored and they could perform them straight off the page without any bureaucratic nonsense intervening. Edward Bond's 'Saved' (1965) is about the constant struggle of young people living on council estates with no job and no aspirations, it was refused a license by the Lord Chamberlain because of it's current social-political content and its revolting scene of a baby being stoned to death. Laurence Olivier is said to have written a letter to The Observer stating “Saved is not a play for children but for grown ups, and gown ups of this country should have the courage to look at it.”.

The Royal Court Theatre went against the Lord Chamberlain's decision and performed the play to 'private' audiences. The Lord Chamberlain was outraged and decided to sue all perpetrators responsible with staging the play. This was a great moment for British theatre as it the public were in turn outraged and the Theatrical Licensing act was finally and thankfully abolished in 1968. Theatre has the power to make people think. Places like China and Vietnam do not want their citizens to think, it doesn't adhere to Hu Jintao's 'harmonious development of society' where he wants his people to just fit in with their ideals and work like a machine without discussion. If playwrights were given the the freedom to write and perform texts about contemporary issues like Bond's Saved, would their style become more dramatic, more psychological and naturalistic? Having said this, Russia had been under censorship for centuries before Stanislavski created his system that altered the way actors perform worldwide. A question which I will look into is, why hasn't their theatre developed? Is it a censorship issue?

Ho Chi Minh and his Vietnamese Vision

Uncle Ho
This 'wonderful' icon of the Vietnamese people was born 19 May 1890 in a Vietnam that was under heavy French colonialism. His life took him around the world working in USA, England, France, Russia and China until he returned to Vietnam as leader of the Viet Minh independence movement. After many years of fighting he became the leader of the country until his death in 1969. There is a general image of him being one of the nice communist leaders, with photos of him working in the fields during the war effort but he was just like the others. It is reported that hundreds of thousands of people were killed in re-education camps, forced labour camps and political executions after the Vietnamese war. A trick he must have learnt from his time in Russia and China. Despite this, he is still a marked hero to the Vietnamese people with his photo hung everywhere and Saigon was renamed after him.

On Raymond's last day before he headed off to Laos, we went to visit Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. Having not visited Lenin's mausoleum in Moscow or Mao's mausoleum in Beijing, I thought I should take this opportunity to see one of the three famous communist dictators. We approached the mausoleum and immediately discovered that we had entered from the wrong direction as I soldier promptly waved us away as we tried to walk across the grass in front. We ended up having to walk around the huge grass area in front of the tomb and then around a block of buildings before finally finding the entrance to the mausoleum and museum. There was no queue, which I was thankful for as I wasn't in the mood to be waiting around for ages to see Uncle Ho, as he is commonly referred to. We had to wait for a few minutes for a few more people to join the group before we followed a soldier dressed in an immaculate white uniform in a line two people wide around the complex and into the cold temperature inside of the mausoleum. The entrance to the resting place of Uncle Ho is grand, the marble walls help maintain the temperature at the constant level required to keep the body in good condition. Soldiers stand on guard at the door with their automatic rifles gripped in both hands. There are strict rules that you need to abide by when visiting, you must not take a camera in with you, must not have a mobile phone on and must be dressed appropriately. As we entered the room where Ho Chi Minh lays, a man's telephone rings and the Vietnamese being the people they are have their ring tones on the loudest setting possible to disturb as many people as they can. The soldier promptly pulled him aside and gave him a stern talking to.

I personally have never seen the fascination to see embalmed people as you could go to Madame Tusauds for that. My main issue with Ho Chi Minh being embalmed is that they spend millions and millions of dollars sending him to Russia every year to get treated and to keep him in state when at the same time Vietnamese people are struggling to survive on the very little money they have. Ho Chi Ming also specifically stated that he wanted to be cremated as he didn't want to take up space that people need to live. So not only are they spending money their citizens need to live, they are going against the wishes of their country's founding father. Utterly disgusting! Alongside the Mausoleum is the Ho Chi Minh museum which is one big museum full of communist propaganda showing photos of Ho doing 'good' in the community, meet his 'fans' etc. There was, of course, no mention of the thousands of people he killed or the many oppressed Vietnamese people.

During my time in Hanoi, Raymond and I made a friend with a man who drives round on his motorbike selling books. Gene rides around on his motorbike from 8am to 10pm selling copied books to tourists and anyone that wants one. As we were sitting outside a restaurant on a busy street corner, Gene pulled up in front of us and asked us whether we wanted to buy a book from him, we told him that we didn't which eventually made him move on. Every fifteen minutes Gene repeated the process however instead of books he went on to marijuana and then onto ladies and 'boom boom'. After an hour, he finally gave up trying to sell us things and started to talk with us like human beings. We got on and invited him for a drink when he finished work, an invitation he accepted and once he had dropped his books off, he joined us for a couple of beers. This happened a couple of nights and we got to know quite a bit about him.

Gene has a wife, young child and a new born baby. He works for twenty-eight days of the month and is only able to return to his village and see his family for three days a month. On a good day he earns only 120,000VND (just under £3.50) a day from selling his books which works out as 840,000VND per week (£24.50). His baby alone costs him around 1,000,000VND (£30) per week. That's already a shortfall in income. He tries to make up some more money by selling marijuana, acting as a moto-taxi, getting customers for 'boom-boom' and laundry, basically anything you can think off he'll help you out for a small fee. We didn't give him any money but supplied him with a few beers each evening we saw him, in return when he saw us he would take us on the back of his bike anywhere we wanted to go. One evening he took us back to our hotel which was quite concerning as he had drank two beers and there were three of us on his bike weaving in the road whilst singing a random version of 'Rivers of Babylon'. He was an extremely friendly man, as are the majority of Vietnamese, and I have utmost respect for his persistence in work to support his family. He was also taking English lessons to improve his chances of getting a better paid job, but as this costs money he can only take a couple of lessons per month, if that.

It was time to say goodbye to Raymond as he got on a bus heading into Laos, this would be the last time I would meet him on my trip we thought we may meet each other again in Saigon but I left two weeks before he got there. Another Dutch man had moved into our room, Niek, a photographer working on a project in Hanoi for a month or so. We spent the next few days relaxing in café's drinking Vietnamese coffee and him showing me around parts of town I hadn't seen whilst he found the elderly Hanoi population and convinced them to take a photo of them. It was a fascinating process to witness, I have always wondered how you go about taking photos of individuals when you can't speak their language but with gestures and a lot of persistent persuasion, Niek managed to get some fantastic photographs for his project. I will add his website link up on here when it becomes live in May sometime.

I liked Hanoi, I spent over two weeks there wondering the bustling streets, savouring the delicious food and drink but it was time to move on. Hanoi is crazy but has a feeling of calm, perhaps it's because I had just come from China and anywhere is calmer than China! You could easily spend a lot longer there just roaming the streets and browsing the many shops and stalls that line the streets. 

Next time, Into the Hills, Sapa!

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