REVIEW: Vietnamese Water Puppets (Auckland Arts Festival)

Vietnamese Water Puppets
Are puppets taking over Auckland?

Puppets, on water, from Vietnam  [by James Wenley]

Vietnamese Water Puppets
Are puppets taking over Auckland?

The Festival Garden in Aotea Square contains quite a treat. At the back, a small lake has been created. Regularly during the festival the Thang Long Troupe of Hanoi perform water puppetry there. You should seek it out.

Water Puppetry is an art form that has been going strong for 1000 years. It was very much a part of cultural life with performances marking and celebrating the end of rice harvest, religious festivals, and other important occasions, and made use of the ‘paddy fields, rivers, canals, lakes and ponds’ of the Northern delta.

It was raining the evening I attended, but that doesn’t stop anyone. The festival organisers have the foresight to hand each audience member a plastic rain-honcho to wear. I’m not sure what would have been the stranger sight that day – puppets seemingly moving through the water by themselves, or rows of people wearing the same ridiculous outfit!

Before the puppetry a band of five entertain us with traditional Vietnamese music, as well as a nice nod to a famous kiwi song. The music is lively, and I enjoy the exotic sound.  The singer Vu Thi Loan has a wonderful voice and is quite strikingly beautiful in her traditional outfit; she takes her time to look out to each audience member, and the many children in attendance.

The puppeteers stand in waist-deep water, their shapes only sort of visible through the pagoda structure that separates them from the audience. The puppets are controlled by sticks underneath the water, and most have one or more points of articulation that can move. The puppets are vividly coloured and look stunning.

As the band drums, a troupe of puppet drummers emerge from the pagoda and play along, splashing into the water each time they push towards the audience. A funny looking puppet called Teu arrives next who is meant to be the buffoon, but the humour alas gets lost in translation. At this point there seemed to be no inherent connection with the water.

The show works when the puppets and water are part of the same environment. The Dragon dance is a favourite, with amazing dragon puppets making patterns in the water, and shooting water out of their mouths! We see scenes from everyday village life – children playing in the water, peasants catching fish and frogs, as well as mythic events – dances of the phoenix, fairies, and the ‘Four Sacred Creatures’.

Kids and adults alike are delighted through the show, and we laugh at the universal humour like the peasants being outwitted by the frogs and fish they are trying to catch. Each section moves briskly, and there is always something new that will swim out and we can discover.

The Vietnamese Water Puppets is incredibly clever, and provides a window into another world.  A great treasure to experience.

The Vietnamese Water Puppets plays as part of the Auckland Arts Festival and performs most days at the Festival Garden until 20th March.

More information at the Auckland Arts Festival Website.

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