East meets West as curtain rises on modern Macbeth

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 August, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 August, 2002, 12:00am

As the theme tune from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey fades, four women dance from the wings, their white dresses and long silver wigs bright under the stage lights. They look more like nymphs than ancient crones in their make-up, but for the next two hours they will be presiding over the fate of Macbeth.

This is Shakespeare for Vietnam and it is loud, bright and fast. Most of the play is set to music, and all of it is amplified.

Shakespeare has long been performed in Vietnam, at first in the traditional music-hall style of Vietnamese Cai Luong theatre.

But it was not until the 1980s that audiences first saw the plays in full. When Romeo and Juliet was performed in 1982, audiences had to book weeks ahead and the play ran for two years.

The new performance of Macbeth adds another Shakespearean tragedy to the Hanoi Youth Theatre's repetoire, joining Romeo and Juliet and Othello.

Lady Macbeth is Nguyen Lan Huong's second Shakespearean lead role. Already a well-known actor, she feels the characters have deepened her artistry.

'I always think that I'm a Vietnamese actress playing a Shakespearean role,' she said. 'But I try to perform as if half of me is Asian with European spirit.'

Unusually for Macbeth, the director, Le Hung, has Lady Macbeth commit suicide on stage. After the murder of Macduff's family, a long red banner shoots out of the dying household group like blood. Lady Macbeth seizes it and in a long scene aided by witches pulling the fabric, she is slowly strangled.

'When Shakespeare wrote this play, the world was more peaceful,' Le Hung said. 'Now with the horrible violence in the world . . . I wanted to convey a strong impression to the audience.'

Vietnamese elements like the drums and the dancing witches were key devices in giving the play a local flavour. Asked why the witches were on stage through most of the play, Le Hung said they were more than fortune tellers.

'They're another side of the Macbeths. They represent desire . . . the psychology of Macbeth and the misery of Lady Macbeth,' he said.

There was another important challenge facing the actors to ensure the play would appeal to modern Vietnamese audiences. With young people particularly used to TV and video games, they were concerned about their attention span - so the play was shortened.

Part of the solution was to drop dialogue. 'The actors will play it, rather than speaking a lot,' scriptwriter Vu Hai said.

So far the play is attracting good crowds, including many who are unfamiliar with Shakespeare's work.

They are charged about US$2 (HK$15) for a ticket - double the cost of a pirated DVD. But Le Hung believes their willingness to dig into their pockets is a good sign for the future of Vietnamese theatre, which is still totally reliant on government funding.