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Updates from the 2011 Artistic DirectorElisabeth EastherSchools Review CompetitionReviews
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The Big Idea Review: Vietnamese Water Puppets

By - 3 Mar 2011
"A scrawny adolescent wades into a fertile stream teeming with the buzzing of sentimental dragonflies, and carp and cod and pink green water lilies."

Review by Zhou Ting-Fung
Read this review on The Big Idea

"His sullied sodden singlet clings to his skinny chest, his sinewy forearms tensing as he raises the tattered bamboo basket above his head.  He sweeps down in a single movement.  There is a loud splash as the basket hits the water, and then a second, more majestic one as he slips, plunging into the water.  The cunning cod escapes.  A girl on the bank giggles.

The miracle is not that what I have described above was enacted by puppets, but that, in reliving the evening's events, I am not sure whether it really happened, or if I simply imagined it.   From the moment we sat down in the open air Garden Theatre, there was alchemy: the conspirators of Vietnamese Water Puppets brought not only a stage filled with water that resembled a rice paddy, but a meandering Vietnamese monsoon with them, a warm summer shower leaving fragile droplets of water on sardonic faces.  Prepared for the downpour, the Festival provided us with translucent plastic ponchos, and as children and septuagenarians alike huddled in to their foldout seats of the open-air Garden Theatre, in our transient guises, we looked rather like a tribe of nomadic travellers.

It was appropriate, because over the next fifty minutes, the Thang Long Troupe took us on a journey.  Taking simple observations of everyday village life in Vietnam as its subject, the mundane rhythms of ploughing, rice planting, fishing, frog catching, and a wedding are re-enacted with an innocent wonder that brims with humour and visual mischievousness.  There is a primitiveness to the hand-made, hand-painted puppets that gives them life, disarming us to laugh and love the brutish baffled buffalo locked in a battle, or a flittering, infatuated couple, using an umbrella to steal a kiss.

What carries the show is its sentiment.  This is folk art in its true sense - quite apart from the obligatory traditional uniforms of the musicians that accompany the puppetry, in their shimmering banquet robes - it is a resurrection and affirmation of a way of life, in which the staging of such performances was to celebrate the coming and going of the seasons: the end of the rice harvest, weddings, religious festivals.  Successful puppetry depends on the ability of a performance to coax the audience into suspending its disbelief, going beyond an imitation of life to attain the characteristics of living.  Though the puppets were made of wood and bamboo and paper, in watching the performance, I became absorbed in the reality of the rural lives that the water puppets represented, and in their performance, enacted.  Then, as now, such performances give the struggle of their ordinary lives meaning, and despite the doubtless hardship of such a way of living - joy.  This significance was not lost on the Thang Long Troupe, who began the show with the musicians playing three Maori folksongs, the last of which was Hine E Hine; a touching gesture of cultural translation, and an acknowledgement of the necessity of preserving, in living forms, our cultural histories, no matter where we are from.

Vietnamese Water Puppets is an enchanting, and completely authentic experience.  It eschews narrative for folksong and puppetry, and is delivered completely in Vietnamese.  Perhaps at times plodding in failing to rise to the level of spectacle, and suffering slightly from the lack of a cohesive thread between each vignette - it makes up for it in its sincerity, and in the imaginative excursions it invites us on, quite beyond the capabilities of a wooden puppet, attached to a stick.  Indeed, the lack of narrative cohesion may be its very point.  It is devoted to how, and why, such a performance would have been made and the lives it depicts, and despite the barrier of language, the show sings.  A charming diversion."


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