Singaporean director enthralled by tuong drama

VietNamNet Bridge – Doctor Chua Soo Pong from Singapore is directing a work entitled Duoi Bong Da Huyen Thoai (The Legendary Banyan Tree) for Viet Nam’s Tuong Theatre. The performance will be staged at Pohang International Performing Arts Festival in Pohang, South Korea in August.


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Doctor Chua Soo Pong


Dr Chua completed his master’s and doctorate in anthropology and ethnomusicology in the UK.

His works have been performed on nearly 80 international stages in the world. He has attended international stage competitions as juror, performer and chairman in many countries such as Turkey, Iran, India, Indonesia, Japan, Finland, Italy, Denmark, Russia, the US, and Viet Nam.

In recent years, he has worked with the Viet Nam National Drama Theatre staging The Mouse Daughter’s Marriage, which was performed at Malaysia’s George Town Festival in August, 2015.

He also led the theatre to perform in China, Japan, South Korea and Bangladesh.

Culture Vulture interviews Dr Chua about Vietnamese traditional tuong classical drama and his efforts to popularise Vietnamese art in the world.

When did you begin to study Vietnamese traditional tuong in general, and Viet Nam’s Tuong Theatre, in particular?

Tuong Theatre is one of Asia’s traditional theatres that has a long history, rich repertoire and complex performing aesthetics. I first saw tuong when I came to Viet Nam as a senior specialist of the SEAMEO SPAFA Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts, to organise a seminar on documentation of performing arts in Southeast Asia.

Our partner is the Ha Noi Academy of Cinema and Theatre. I met Le Dang Thuc, the director of the academy at that time. During the visit, I saw tuong, cheo (traditional opera) and cai luong (reformed drama). I was most impressed by these beautiful theatrical genres of Viet Nam.

I also met Le Tien Tho, a prominent tuong artist, and we became good friends immediately as we share the passion of promoting traditional theatre as cultural heritage. I watched many more tuong performances on my subsequent visits.

I also invited the Tuong Theatre to participate in a Traditional Theatre at the Park and Seminar on Asian Traditional Festival I organised in 1988. Later, I facilitated the visit of Tuong Theatre in China (I was then the Chief Adviser of the CHINA-ASEAN Theatre Week, in Nanning) and South Korea (Wonju),

Could you tell us more about the co-operation with the Tuong Theatre?

It is a great honour to be invited by the Viet Nam Tuong Theatre’s director Pham Ngoc Tuan to direct The Legendary Banyan Tree. It was a rewarding experience to work with distinguished artists like People’s Artist Hong Khiem, People’s Artist Anh Duong and Meritorious Artist Minh Tam after watching their performances for many years. 

I really did not encounter any difficulty as the Tuong Theatre has a wonderful team of artists who are dedicated and willing to put in extra hard work to achieve artistic excellence. Tuong shares many aesthetic principles of traditional theatre genres that I have worked with, like Chinese opera, Japanese kabuki, and Indonesian wayang wong. When I demonstrate the movements desired for a particular scene, they immediately understand the quality of movements needed. And we refine them together. 

Traditional art festivals have been held annually in Viet Nam. Have you had chance to attend a tuong festival?

I was honoured and privileged to be invited by artist Tho to the Tuong Festival to commemorate playwright Tong Phuoc Pho. The festival was organised by the municipal People’s Committee of Da Nang and the Viet Nam Stage Artists’ Association. The festival was an excellent showcase of the passion and dedication of the hundreds of artists who are devoted to one of the traditional art forms of Viet Nam.

Playwright Pho was one of the most prolific and respected playwrights who contributed to the development of tuong. He was bestowed posthumously with the Ho Chi Minh Prize for Literature and Arts in 1996, the highest award for such endeavors.

The festival gave me a rare opportunity to study his works and to view the works of six professional and 14 amateur tuong theatre companies from different parts of Viet Nam. It was also an opportunity to visit Da Nang’s Nguyen Hien Dinh Tuong Museum and Theatre at 155 Phan Chau Trinh Street, which hosted the 11-day festival.

What most impressed you at the festival?

I had many impressions of the festival. The Viet Nam Stage Artists’ Association plays a key role in the promotion and protection of the tuong theatrical genre. The event provides an opportunity for the Tuong Theatre to present its works at a national level.

It is an honour for the amateur groups and an affirmation of their hard work and achievement in practicing the art form that does not attract young audiences.

The quality of productions varies as some lack resources and consistent training as seen from their simple props; inability to print brochures and make attractive costumes; and their lower level of performing skills.

The professional groups generally produce better shows supported by good orchestras, strong acting and singing. These productions are enhanced by good stage designs, too. There are also some outstanding actors and actresses among the amateur groups.

There are clear regional differences among the tuong groups in musical styles. For example, I notice that the percussion of An Tu Cong Chua (Princess An Tu) by the HCM Tuong Theatre was markedly different from the Viet Nam Tuong Theatre of Ha Noi. The songs and music are not the same as those from northern Viet Nam.

The two productions from the central province of Thua Thien-Hue, Lam Sanh-Xuan Nuong and Ngo Vuong Quyen (King Ngo Quyen) too, have distinctive musical styles.

There are the two types of repertoire including indigenous stories like Ngon Lua Hong Son (Hong Son Flame) and Son Hau that have similar themes about loyalty, honesty, justice and perseverance in the traditional theatre of other Asian countries, like the Chinese opera traditional theatre, Indonesian wayong wong or khon of Thailand. These stories reflect the historical perspective of Vietnamese artists and the social issues with which they were concerned, as well as their cultural values. 

VNS

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