In 3,254 verses, written in six-eight meter, the Tale of Kieu recounts the trials and tribulations of a beautiful and talented young woman named Thuy Kieu. Kieu was born into a well-educated family, and fell in love with a young man named Kim Trong. Then disaster struck her family. Her father and brother were arrested and imprisoned. To help her family, Kieu had no choice but to sell herself. As catastrophe followed on catastrophe, Kieu followed her tragic fate, cheated by people she trusted and forced to work in a house of pleasure as a singer, concubine, servant.
“The Fate of Kieu”, the new experimental puppetry play directed by Nguyen Tien Dung, doesn’t cover Kieu’s entire life, just the period of her greatest misery and misfortune – acted out by puppets.
Tien Dung has staged the show using conventions of theater production which depart at times from the chronological order of the Tale of Kieu. The play covers only a few of the major events in Thuy Kieu’s life. After her family falls into dire circumstances due to slander from a treacherous silk seller, Thuy Kieu ends up working twice as a servant and twice in a brothel over a period of 15 years.
|Director Nguyen Tien Dung (on the far left) and his collaborators in "The Fate of Kieu".
Director Dung realized this puppetry version of the Kieu tale after nurturing the idea for 10 years. He said: “10 years ago, when I was studying at the Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema, I planned to do something related to the Tale of Kieu for my final exam, but I wasn’t confident enough to do it because I lacked life and professional experience”.
But Dung continued to nurture the idea. In 2019, he decided to experiment with bringing Kieu to the stage for the 2019 International Experimental Stage Festival, which encourages new ideas and creativity.
Right away, Tien Dung began to run into problems. He had read Kieu and scripts for Kieu in the forms of Cheo (traditional opera), and Cai luong (Reformed Theatre) many times. Then he had the idea of asking Meritorious Artist Le Chuc and writer Nguyen Hieu to write a Kieu script for puppetry. Having worked with puppetry for a long time, Dung understood the advantages and disadvantages of applying the puppetry genre to a classic work like Kieu. Dung again: “The biggest challenge is that emotions like crying, laughing, happiness, and sadness are difficult to portray with lifeless puppets”.
Director Dung turned to artist Le Dinh Nguyen, who has more than 30 years of experience in designing puppets. Le Dinh Nguyen said that it normally takes him at least 6 months to design a puppetry play. Dung had given him only 2 months to do “The Fate of Kieu”. He said: “After designing puppets for the 2019 International Experimental Stage Festival, I only had 20 days to make the 30 puppets. At first I was sure I couldn’t do it. But I have a great passion for my art, so I gave it my best effort”.
In a very limited time, Nguyen needed to make 30 puppets which were not merely beautiful, but – more importantly – were able to express the personality of each character in Kieu. Nguyen said he worked closely with director Dung to create the puppets. Nguyen said: “The first character I worked on was the silk seller, a cunning fellow with a hatchet face. I created a puppet that closely matched the poem’s description of his character and appearance. The costume of the silk seller looks like a rag. Another character named So Khanh is a Jekyll and Hyde character, a pleasant gentleman and a lady killer. Dung asked me to design a double-sided face to reflect So Khanh’s dual nature. Dung gave me a lot of good ideas for the puppets”.
Thuy Kieu, the most important character, cost Nguyen a lot of time. He got an inspiration for his Thuy Kieu puppet completely by chance. He said: “I went through a lot of failed ideas when I was designing the puppet of Kieu. I spent two long nights thinking about what the puppet of Thuy Kieu should look like. When I went to the theater one morning for rehearsal, an idea just dropped into my head. Kieu’s head should resemble a dan ty ba (a traditional Vietnamese plucked string instrument), because throughout the play, Kieu is closely associated with that instrument. When Kieu meets Kim Trong, she plays the instrument. She also plays it during the frenzy of Hoan Thu’s jealousy and when Tu Hai dies”.
The play leaves out many characters from the original poem, such as Kieu’s lover Kim Trong and her sister Thuy Van. Only the years of Kieu’s great misery and misfortune are included in “The Fate of Kieu”. These episodes include Kieu deciding to sell herself to save her father; Kieu getting tricked and maltreated by Ma Giam Sinh, Tu Ba, and Thuc Sinh; Kieu attempting suicide and getting saved by the nun Giac Duyen, and then being deceived by Bac Ba and Bac Hanh and redeemed by Tu Hai; and finally Kieu falling into the clutches of Ho Ton Hien.
Several characters, whose actions make the audience dislike them, evoke laughter from the audience in some scenes. The silk seller, for example, who is used as a narrator to open the play, appears in several dramatic scenes but serves the role of comic relief. Another highly expressive character, a pen, appears repeatedly throughout the play. This pen represents the poet Nguyen Du himself and describes the poet’s regret when Kieu fate falls out of his “decisive hand” and drifts away into her tragic life.
The puppetry play’s success is due in no small part to its music, which is a combination of traditional and contemporary styles arranged by musician Nguyen Vinh Tien. The poignancy of many scenes is greatly enhanced by the music. The set design is also impressive, characterized by the silk ribbons that symbolize Kieu’s life.
Many talented artists from the Vietnam National Puppetry Theatre spent long days and nights rehearsing the play for the 2019 International Experimental Stage Festival. Director Nguyen Tien Dung said: “This was a real experiment in terms of performing, music, and stage installation. Everything had to be done in a month. It was a new experience for the artists because the play was completely different from anything they had done before”.
For many puppeteers, performing in this play is a unique experience. Meritorious Artist Do Thi Kha, said: “I’m so proud to be a part of the success of “The Fate of Kieu”. Controlling the puppets is very difficult. First, you have to become the character. As artists, we need to breathe souls into lifeless puppets to successfully depict their characters”.
Meritorious Artist Nguyen The Long said: “I’m so proud to take part in a classic work like The Tale of Kieu. This play has raised the status of Vietnamese puppetry”.
At the 2019 International Experimental Stage Festival, the play won many awards, including gold medals for best play, best director, best visual artist, plus two more gold medals and five silver medals for its cast of performers.