Toned-down drama draws young crowds
by Anh Thu
For his production of the historical drama, Bi Mat Vuon Le Chi (The Secret of Le Chi Manor), director Thanh Loc simplified the set and costume design, retained the authentic speech used by Vietnamese centuries ago, and demanded that the actors not over-play their roles, as is customary in many local productions. The result: tickets for the next three weeks have sold out.
On opening night last weekend, a steady downpour couldn’t keep audiences away from the new play, whose theme revolves around the unjust death of national hero Nguyen Trai, Viet Nam’s great stateman, scholar and poet.
Nearly 1,000 people attended the two performances, in which director and artist Thanh Loc, one of the country’s leading actors, performed a minor role.
The three-hour tragedy, staged by HCM City’s IDECAF Drama Troupe at its theatre on Le Thanh Ton Street, has been especially popular among students and labourers, a clear indication that the city is ready for more serious drama and fewer comedies, say theatre critics.
“Although my friends and I really like comedies or musical performances, we’re willing to get a taste of what tragic drama is like,” said Nguyen Thuy An, a 19-year-old student at HCM City Teachers’ University, who attended the Sunday performance. “Serious plays are like valuable books that contain lessons that help youth learn more about the country’s traditional culture and lifestyle.”
Loc said he and the rest of the actors faced many challenges staging the historical drama, which explores the year before Nguyen Trai’s death and the year after.
“I was very careful choosing the play and selecting the actors,” he said. “Nguyen Trai is a national hero. His politics and writings are popular among Vietnamese so the biggest challenge concerned the doubts about Trai’s life as written about by historians and cultural researchers at home and abroad.”
The original script by well-known playwright and researcher Hoang Huu Dan was selected, Loc said, because it portrayed Nguyen Trai and his wife as faithful and loyal officials involved in the life of their country and people.
In an attempt to simplify the play’s theme, he asked costume designers to use only black and white, an unusual choice since most Vietnamese productions typically use a florid colour scheme.
“These colours stand for what is evil and good about human beings,” he said.
In the title role of Nguyen Trai, actor Huu Chau, who is often seen in comedic roles, had to refine his acting skills to successfully portray the spirit of the famed hero.
“My colleagues and I have really improved our acting,” Chau said. “We tried our best to show that comic actors like us can carry serious roles.”
Loc said the IDECAF Drama Troupe’s managing board and its staff interrupted their comedic performances for months to stage the play, losing money in the process.
“Luring Saigonese, particularly youth, to watch a serious play like Bi Mat Vuon Le Chi isn’t easy. But we believe in ourselves and what we can do,” he said.
A familiar figure
Generations of Vietnamese students have studied the writings and poetry of Nguyen Trai, which were originally written in both Han (classical Chinese) and Nom (ideographic Vietnamese) scripts.
Among the most famous of his works are Quan Trung Tu Menh Tap (Writings for the Army), Binh Ngo Dai Cao ( Proclamation of Victory over Foreign Invaders) and Quoc Am Thi Tap (Collection of Poems in the National Language).
Born in 1380 in Thang Long (the first official name of Ha Noi), Nguyen Trai was the son of the famous poet Nguyen Phi Khanh, who lived under the Ho Dynasty. His parents were from the village of Nhi Khe in Ha Dong Province’s Thuong Phu District.
Also known as Uc Trai, Nguyen Trai supported King Le Loi in his aim to liberate the Vietnamese from the domination of China’s Ming Dynasty.
He joined the insurgent Lam Son army led by Le Loi in 1416 to fight against the Ming and played a critical role in the victory of Le Loi’s army. After the war, he held a high rank in the new court.
After King Le Loi’s death in 1433, the young heir Le Thai Tong, however, did not trust Nguyen Trai, who was known for fighting against corrupt officials and sycophantic courtiers.
Nguyen Trai then decided to retire to the Con Son region in northern province of Hai Duong’s Chi Linh District, spending his time writing.
A wronged innocent
In Thanh Loc’s production at IDECAF Theatre, the circumstances of Nguyen Trai’s death, which resulted from a secret involving the death of the young King Le Thai Tong, are explored.
It includes scenes in early 1442 when the King visited Nguyen Trai’s Le Chi manor while he was away.
The King met and talked with Nguyen Trai’s young wife, Nguyen Thi Lo, a native of Thai Binh Province, who was known for her great learning. He decided to sleep at the manor, and that night, he suddenly became ill and died.
The court later blamed Nguyen Trai and his wife for the king’s death, accusing them of treason. The couple, and members of three generations of both of their families, were then executed.
Twenty years later, King Le Thanh Tong officially pardoned Nguyen Trai, declaring that the great scholar was innocent in the death of the late King Le Thai Tong. — VNS