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Water puppetry comes full circle in new play

(5 votes, average 3.00 out of 5)

The latest show by theatre director Việt Tú, performed on a 1.5 hectare lake, has broken new ground in more ways than one.

Making a splash: 140 local farmers and other residents villagers of the Đa Phúc Village in Sài Sơn Commune are performers in The Quintissence of Tonkin, a show directed by Việt Tú. – 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 Việt people

Thuở Ấy Xứ Đoài or The Quintessence of Tonkin, the one-hour play amazed audiences when it was staged on a 1.5ha lake in Hà Nội’s Sài Sơn Commune.

The commune is located in Hà Nội’s suburban district of Quốc Oai, called Xứ Đoài in the old days.

Tú said the play was inspired by Việt Nam’s water puppetry.

“Vietnamese water puppetry is very well known. Almost every foreign tourist coming to Việt 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.”

Tú has a reputation for doing things differently.

  1. Four Palaces, an artistic interpretation of hầu đồng, 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 Đa Phúc Village in Sài Sơn 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 thủy đình (pavilion on water), which is a life-size replica of the one built during the Lý Dynasty (1010 - 1225) on the village’s Long Chiểu Pond.

“The village’s thủy đình is the place where water puppetry is performed. Monk and zen master Từ Đạo Hạnh (1072-1116), who spent his life at the Thầy Pagoda in the village, is considered the ancestor of this art form. That’s why I want to bring this idea to the show,” Tú said, explaining why he decided to create a 10-tonne replica of thủy đình.

Based on several famous water puppetry acts, the show opens with the Tễu Giáo Đầu (The Prelude of Tễu). Local life in Xứ Đoài is reproduced on the stage with puppetry acts like Đuổi Cáo Bắt Vịt (Expell Fox and Catch Duck), Ngư Ông (Fisherman), Chim Loan Phượng (The Phoenix).

In between the puppet scenes, farmers perform Nắng Sớm (Early Morning Sunlight), Đào Liễu or the artistic demonstration of a village festival and vinh qui bái tổ – a tradition since the 15th century, which is the homecoming of a successful 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 thủy đình and a modern laser lighting system creating amazing effects, The Quintessence of Tonkin is a striking visual feast.

Historian Dương Trung Quốc 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 Đức Hùng of the Thăng 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 Tú because he has used a very creative way to tell the cultural story of Xứ Đoài 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. 


Musical scene: A farmer acts as a herdsman playing the flute in The Quintessence of Tonkin.

Grand welcome: An enactment of the vinh qui bái tổ, a procession traditionally held when a successful graduate returns to his village.

Life in the field: Water puppets depict wet rice cultivation. –

Historical restoration: A thủy đình (pavilion on water), which is a life-size replica of the one built during the Lý Dynasty (1010 - 1225) on the village’s Long Chiểu Pond, has been set up on the stage built on a 1.5-hectare lake.


Source: VNS

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