Combine long embroidered gowns, exaggerated makeup and a storyline consisting of some forbidden, heart-wrecking love and the results are timeless. Vietnamese reformed theatre, cai luong, is a performance production with an intent to impress.
-Photo of a scene from “Chiec Ao Thien Nga” via Viet Nam News.
But greatness comes with an expensive price tag so its no surprise that keeping cai luong suspended above financial turmoil is a struggle as popular theatre venues in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City close down for months without financial backings.
Growing up, I remember categorizing cai luong as some lost art form. The people from my age group hardly appreciated it and those who held cai luong in their hearts were aging quickly. It was rare to see a young actor/singer in a cai luong production; typically they were older, as if those same actors had aged alongside the art, and sadly, there was no one waiting to take their place.
Traditionally extravagant with large orchestras and opera-like singing, problems arise when the productions hardly break even with their budgets. In 2007, “Kim Van Kieu” broke records with costs amounting to $95,000 (VND 1.8 billion) consisting of 81 musicians, 400 costumes and nearly 500 in the cast. In 2008, “Chiec Ao Thien Nga” and “Chuyen Tinh Lan va Diep” had budgets of $200,000 (VND 3.8 billion) and $69,000 (VND1.3 billion) respectively. Unfortunately, “Kim Van Kieu” had only two performances and “Chiec Ao Thien Nga” had three.
“We were lucky to get back the costs of both dramas thanks to sponsorships,” said Quoc Hung, Deputy Director of the Tran Huu Trang Cai Luong Theatre, in an interview with Viet Nam News.
Recently, “Sorry, I’m a…,” a love story between a man and a prostitute, received disappointing reviews as audiences accuse the theatre of merely using expensive technology to distract audiences from the talents within the production.
"The work would succeed if it were performed on a smaller stage, allowing audiences to see the actors' faces and gestures," said journalist Van Bay in Viet Nam News.
But others are still opposed to the idea of reforming a traditional way of running business, claiming that the imposing stages are why “audiences want to go to theatre in the first place and not stay at home watching television,” according to HCM City-based Hoang Duan.
Although it is true that people go to the theatre for an experience that cannot be attained from home, perhaps Vietnam’s theatre directors should reconsider the elaborate stages and focus on artistic creativity to prevent an atrocious ending. It is realistically better to have smaller performances keeping the theatre alive than to close down for several months due to budget problems.