Australia has undoubtedly been embroiled in a love affair with Vietnam over the past decade. From the huge demand for travel to the area, to its popularisation through media figures such as Anh Do, Luke Nguyen and the Top Gear lads, through to the myriad of bành mí outlets gracing our cities, it appears that Aussies have an appetite for all things Vietnamese. Perhaps continuing this trend, or perhaps because of it, the Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam’s production of A O Lang Pho finds itself as part of this year’s Perth International Arts Festival, playing at the Regal Theatre from Thursday 16th February to Sunday the 25th of February.
‘A O Lang Pho’, loosely translated, refers to the concepts of ‘Village and City’. For those who have visited Vietnam it is a central theme that rings true, as avoiding traffic in bustling centres like Ho Chi Minh City is offset by the serenity of pastoral life, and the simplicity of beautiful countryside, good food and a hard day’s work. In the 70-minute performance, Nouveau Cirque de Vietnam weaves together theatre, dance, music and acrobatics to explore this dichotomy, using a range of props such as woven baskets and bamboo poles to explore the industrialisation and urbanisation of Vietnam, and its consequences for the country.
The technical aspects of the show are near perfect. The props, while simple, are used on a scale that impresses. Woven baskets large enough to conceal a performer or be used as a springboard, 20-foot bamboo poles used for juggling and balancing, and an immense number of smaller, hand held props give the impression of complexity and colour while remaining true to some very ancient traditions. Lighting, sound and costume, similarly, are thoughtfully considered and beautifully measured, providing an effective canvas on which the performers paint.
And paint they do. The show features a cast of fifteen acrobats and five musicians, all of whom invest their performance with an energy and charisma impossible not to be won over by. From the energetic opening sequence involving a seemingly endless cascade of tumbles and flips, through to humorous theatrical vignettes of modern Vietnamese urban life, the performers maintain exceptional focus and humanity in their work, connecting with their audience despite the lack of a common language. Scenes include such diverse content as interactions between frogs and insects, busy markets, and hip hop dance battles, but the performers move effortlessly between each, transitioning artfully from character to character, emotion to emotion.
The music in this show deserves special mention. In the absence of a connection through language, it is vital that the emotional contents of each scene are transmitted fully, and the live performances on a mixture of modern and traditional Vietnamese instruments do this beautifully. The music is at once foreign and familiar, in the here and now and of centuries past, and expertly captures the mood and energy of the dramatic action. There’s not a note out of place, and the artistic choice to give musical performers stage space as recognition is subtle, but important.
Of all the artistic elements occurring here (and there are many to choose from), the final round of applause must go to the show’s artistic director, Tuan Le. As a cultural experience, or a display of acrobatics, or a contemporary dance piece, A O Lang Pho would hold up against the competition. Its genius is in how these elements are brought together, and offered up as a cohesive and utterly immersive whole. Quieter moments are given the chance to breathe. Technical choices serve as an additional character, providing energy and conflict to the performers. Every step, leap, throw and tumble has been carefully positioned and skilfully mastered. The result is reminiscent of a catch-up with a good friend, where hours pass and the moments wash over you, until departing leaves you simultaneously grateful for the time spent and sad that it is over.
There are many good reasons to see A O Lang Pho. See it because you’re sad that La Soiree is over for another year. See it because you’re trying to decide between Hanoi and Sapa for the last leg of your trip. See it because there’s lessons to be learned about growing too quickly, becoming too fast-paced, and losing the things that made your home what it was. Or see it because it is an intelligent, endearing and beautiful production, performed with absolute conviction and immense skill, and because you would be crazy to miss it.
2017 Perth International Arts Festival
A O Lang Pho
Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam
Venue: Regal Theatre | 474 Hay Street, Subiaco WA
Dates: 16 – 25 Feb 2017
Tickets: $66.30 – $25.50