Vietnam's literary classic captures European imagination

By Linh Do   October 10, 2019 | 10:00 pm PT
Two European adaptations of Nguyen Du’s epic poem, "The Tale of Kieu", reaffirm the timeless appeal and allure of Vietnam’s literary masterpiece.

Lovers of Vietnamese literature are being treated this Fall season to two refreshing theatrical adaptations of poet Nguyen Du’s 19th century work "Truyen Kieu" (The Tale of Kieu).

1. The French and Vietnamese artists taking part in the Kim Van Kieu musical shown at the French Institute (L’Espace) in Hanoi. Photo provided by L’Espace.

The French and Vietnamese artists performing in the "Kim Van Kieu" musical staged at the French Institute (L’Espace) in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of L’Espace.

For the first time, local audiences saw a musical adaptation of the country’s literary classic work that tells the story of a talented and beautiful young woman named Kieu who has to sell herself into marriage to save her family and is later forced into prostitution.

The musical "Kim Van Kieu", adapted and performed by artists from L’Attrape theater in Paris, were shown for two nights in HCMC and one night at the French Institute (L’Espace) in Hanoi.

Elsewhere in the world, before this musical, which was performed in French with Vietnamese subtitles, there was a Vietnamese-English musical adaptation directed by American director Burton Wolfe.  

Throughout the years, Nguyen Du’s masterpiece has been translated into different languages and is considered to belong to the world literary canon, like the works of Cervantes, Chekhov, Shakespeare and Goethe.

The 3,254-line poem has also been adapted to various art forms by Vietnamese living in Vietnam, as well as foreign artists and overseas Vietnamese abroad.

Yet, according to musician Mai Thanh Son, one of two Vietnamese artists performing in the French musical, almost no foreign adaptation has been shown to local audiences.  

Thus, L’Attrape musical, together with a series of events to be held this October by the Goethe Institute in Vietnam, are filling in the gap and bringing new foreign perspectives to the classic, which has long been treasured for its exquisite language and quintessentially Vietnamese cultural expressions. 

Contagious ‘infection’     

Christophe Thiry, artistic director of the L’ Attrape theater who directed the  musical, said he didn’t know much about Vietnam, and had never been here before, and it was a Vietnamese friend, a loyal fan of Parisian theatre, who first introduced Nguyen Du’s masterpiece to him.

3. Madam Tu, a brothel’s owner who ties a belt around Kieu’s waist in a symbolic gesture signifying Kieu’s new life as a sex slave. Madam Tu delivers some of the most hilarious lines about greed in the musical. Photo provided by L’Espace.

Madam Tu, a brothel owner, has a belt tied around Kieu’s waist, symbolizing Kieu’s new life as a sex slave. Photo courtesy of L’Espace.

"Read this and maybe you’ll find something in it," Thiry recalled the friend saying after giving him a copy of "Truyen Kieu". Thiry said he read it and indeed found many things in it.  

"'Truyen Kieu' is extremely deep, vivid, humorous, and also filled with violence," Thiry said at a recent press conference before the Hanoi performance, explaining what made him decide to adapt this work, which Nguyen Du himself had creatively re-written from a 17th-century Chinese novel.        

Nguyen Du’s humor has been interpreted well by the French musical. The Hanoi performance evoked repeated peals of laughter from the audience. The musical’s most hilarious character turned out to be the greedy and cruel brothel owner Tu Ba, or Madam Tu, who ends up justly punished by Kieu in the end.          

Applying English theater and film director Peter Brook’s idea of an empty stage, the French musical doesn’t use any props other than musical instruments, both Vietnamese and Western, traditional and modern, to help tell Kieu’s story through music.

Mai Thanh Son and his younger brother Mai Thanh Nam play traditional Vietnamese music for the musical, and during the production phase, they translated the French script into Vietnamese subtitles and provided essential coaching in Vietnamese pronunciation to the French artists.  

The two brothers said they respected and didn’t interfere with the French script, and only helped their colleagues practice speaking Vietnamese, especially Vietnamese names, correctly.   

Odile Heimburger, who plays several female characters in the musical, said Vietnamese is a beautiful but difficult language. The task of speaking Vietnamese well was particularly daunting to Nicolas Simeha, who doesn’t know any Vietnamese but had to sing the southern folk opera song "Da Co Hoai Lang".

Simeha, who plays one of two narrators as well as So Khanh, a finely drawn playboy and con artist character in Nguyen Du’s poem that has become a noun in Vietnamese, designating a terrible man who deceives women, said that it was thanks to this musical that a friend of his, actor François-Xavier Phan, decided to return to Vietnam and connect with his roots.

Phan’s parents are Vietnamese, but he was born in France and barely had any connection with Vietnamese culture. After he saw Kim Van Kieu in Paris, he was greatly moved. He returned to his home country and along the way, developed a project related to "Truyen Kieu". 

"So our play is like an infection," Simeha said. "It spreads, in small ways, from one person to the next."

Universal values

In Vietnamese literature, Kieu, a heroine who is quite assertive in love considering the Confucian ideal of female timidity and obedience of her times, represents a woman’s courage and willingness to sacrifice her own happiness to protect her family.

A scene in which Kieu meets Dam Tien, also an unfortunate beauty and talent whose tragic fate omens what will befall Kieu. Photo provided by L’Espace.

A scene in which Kieu meets the ghost of Dam Tien, also an unfortunate beauty and talent whose tragic fate is an omen of what will befall Kieu. Photo courtesy of L’Espace.

As the oldest child, when her father and younger brother are framed by a silk dealer and have their wealth taken away by the government, and face imprisonment - all in an incomprehensible twist of fate reflecting turbulent times, Kieu steps up and does the only thing a woman can do: sell herself into a marriage to have money to save her family.

She is later tricked and forced into prostitution, and spends an ordeal-filled 15 years in "exile" before being reunited with her family.

For many contemporary readers, this story of a daughter having to sell herself for her father’s sake and being forced into prostitution can sound too outdated.  

"For us Westerners, this is unacceptable. Why do daughters have to sell themselves to save their fathers?" Christophe Thiry asked rhetorically. He then added that, on second thoughts, the West these days is also facing a great deal of violence. "So this is a story that can happen."

Thiry said Nguyen Du’s genius lies in the fact that he was able to capture universal values that encompass many cultures and countries, starting from Vietnam and China. 

Actress Odile Heimburger also stressed the universality of a gendered story about a woman who has to face many hardships in life.

The relevance of such themes as gender oppression, forced prostitution and human trafficking evident in Nguyen Du’s classic is also being recognized by the Goethe Institute, which is carrying out another project of reinterpreting and adapting "Truyen Kieu".  

The Goethe Institute’s project includes four theatrical adaptations to be shown at the Tuoi tre (Youth) Theatre in Hanoi on October 12 & 13, and at Hong Van Theatre in HCMC on October 19.

These adaptations are being produced by three Vietnamese troupes led by well-known directors Hong Van, Tran Luc and Bui Nhu Lai respectively, as well as by German director and professor Amélie Niermeyer.   

A wall installation exhibition titled "A Girl Named K" featuring German artist Franca Bartholomäi’s woodcuts and papercuts about "Truyen Kieu" opened on October 7 at the Goethe Institute in Hanoi. 

Commenting on this seemingly coincidental interest in "Truyen Kieu", Thiry said that it may reflect an alternative response to the current common tendency to treat life lightly, simplify it, and easily let go of it. 

"Truyen Kieu", on the contrary, reminds one that reality is much harder, human beings are much more vulnerable, and life is much more intelligent and precious, he said.    

On the other hand, musician Mai Thanh Son, who teaches traditional Vietnamese music at the HCMC Conservatory of Music, pointed out that such an interest is the hard-earned result of a very long process in which authorities have been trying to promote traditional Vietnamese culture worldwide. 

"This is not accidental," Son said. "Nothing is."    

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