Shakespeare meets Saigon

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Romeo and Juliet is once again a cultural bridge connecting classic European drama to traditional Vietnamese art

A scene of "˜Romeo and Juliet in Saigon' shows the couple participating in a traditional mua sap bamboo dance, which comes from Vietnam's Muong ethnic minority community

It's unlikely that the ethnic Muong communities of northwest Vietnam had Shakespeare in mind when they created their mua sap bamboo dances.

Equally unlikely is that Shakespeare would have ever envisioned his characters in a Southeast Asian megopolis of the future.

But these two unlikely partners made a fine match (or at least a likeable odd couple) in "Romeo and Juliet in Saigon," a one-time performance at the Institute of Cultural Exchange with France (Idecaf) in Ho Chi Minh City July 15.

The play, sponsored by Norway's Nordic Black Theater and the Norwegian Embassy in Vietnam, was packed with an audience rapt by this surprising re-imagination of classic work.

The play featured a Romeo and Juliet born in modern Saigon, not the Verona of the 16th century. The characters wore modern clothes and spoke Vietnamese. The romantic but tragic love story was abridged to 50 minutes as much of Shakespeare's long dialogues and monologues were reinterpreted into contemporary dance and the traditional body movements of hat boi (Vietnamese classical operatic theater art).

Most of the performance's twenty players didn't have lines and spent much of their time more as set pieces than as actors. For example, in the famous balcony scene, Juliet is standing on the shoulders of a cast member.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the performance was the discussion with the cast and crew afterwards. Surveys were distributed to the audience that encouraged viewers to reflect thoughtfully on what they had seen, and they were then allowed to ask questions, which the artists answered while sitting on the stage.

Most questions went to the work's Norwegian director, Cliff Moustache. Viewers wanted to know how and why the artist had combined the classic English drama with traditional Vietnamese hat boi.

Some even complained that although they enjoyed the play and laughed at its comedic moments (of which there were more than a few), when the show was over those emotions seemed somewhat cursory and fleeting, as though the performance hadn't dug deep enough. Some said that hat boi was not done justice in the play.


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Moustache explained comfortably that the combination was based simply on the artists' love for both hat boi and Shakespeare.

"The imagination and creativeness have no limit. Why don't we try? We will be back in September, I hope you will cry when the curtain comes down," said Moustache.

Moustache and his Vietnamese-American partner Nguyen Nghieu Khai Thu, who has completed her doctoral thesis on Vietnamese theater arts at the University of California, Berkeley, applied the same experimental theater genre-bending techniques in her play "One More Midsummer Night's Dream." The work, inspired by Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," was staged in HCMC in Vietnamese in 2009.

The remaining of that Shakespeare play was the third play by North-East-West-South (NEWS,) performing arts group founded by Moustache and Thu in 2007 with members from the HCMC Classical Drama Art Theater and the HCMC College of Theater and Film.

"Romeo and Juliet in Saigon" was NEWS's fourth production.

Phuong Thanh, an audience member at the recent show, told Vietweek that she was fascinated by the way the artists infused the familiar story of Romeo and Juliet with Vietnamese-isms.

For example, Romeo rides a bicycle through Saigon, Juliet drives a motorbike, and the couple participates in a traditional mua sap bamboo dance, which comes from Vietnam's Muong ethnic minority community.

 "I also liked the argument scene when the two rival clans sang famous Vietnamese songs at each other that was really nice," Thanh said.

According to a recent Tuoi Tre report, Moustache and Thu gave their cast and crew an unusual amount of creative freedom. The play's script was created as a collaborative effort, with the young cast pushing for the show to reveal the Saigon they know and love, such as when the lovers first meet at Y Bridge (Cau chu Y), a famous bridge connecting the city's districts 5 and 8.

Linh Phuoc, an actor from the HCMC Classical Drama Art Theater who consulted with the play's creators, said that although he has had a long and successful career as an actor, he learned a lot from the way the foreign artists directed the performance. He said the rhythms, sets, lighting and scene changes were notably different from what audiences are used to.

"The combination of Vietnamese hat boi and Western classic theatrical art did match. The two types of art shared many similarities via the plain and symbolic stage arrangement and symbolic gestures," he told Vietweek.

"We artists shared a love for art and creativity [while working on the project]. The young artists showed their zeal for the work. And I found nothing but joy when taking part in such an art project," he said.

Phuoc also said that the foreign directors shared a deep passion for the esoteric conventions and body movements of hat boi that they should be proud of.

However, not everyone in the audience was thrilled with the experiment.

Chau Quang Phuoc, a freelance scriptwriter and communication executive, said that although fresh and experimental plays like "Romeo and Juliet in Saigon" are worth a try, this one did not meet his expectations.

"It was more like a mess rather than a combination," Phuoc told Vietweek. "When the director tried to let the actors do whatever they wanted, he seemed to lose his control and his intentions for the play."

He also said hat boi was not represented well.

"It lost all its features like its specific manual movements and make-up-like masks, which distinguish it from cai luong (Vietnamese reformed theater) and cheo (Vietnamese traditional operetta.) What is a combination if it cannot highlight the quintessence of both Shakespeare and hat boi?"

Ultimately for Quang Phuoc, the play was too comedic for it to stay true to Romeo and Juliet's tragic impact.

 "Many like the funny scenes and dialogue and I agree. But the humor did not match the tragic ending, and that's why it left nothing in the viewers' mind."

Still, this one-time show's best scenes received rapturous applause from a captivated audience, and given that the theater was packed to the brim, we can expect more interesting work from this enthusiastic young group in the future.

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