Do you have no idea what water puppets are? Neither did I until today. I’d read the script for today’s filming at the Water Puppet Theatre in Hanoi, but still couldn’t really picture it. We had a lovely arrival at this lakeside attraction in the centre of town due to the fact that at weekends the traffic is diverted from the old streets, so the normally chaotic moped thronged alleys were instead blissfully empty, with tourists and locals ambling about and even a bunch of people playing badminton in the middle of the road.
Once we’d gone upstairs to the theatre (which seats a few hundred people) and interviewed some performers, we made our way backstage and got to grips with it all. The stage is like nothing I’d ever seen before – a waist deep pool of green water with a raised orchestra pit at the side and a large Chinese style pagoda behind. Behind the pagoda are heaps of knee high puppets with horizontal rods coming out from their feet. The performers put on waders and enter the water behind a screen at the bottom of the pagoda and then stick the puppets out so they look like they’re walking on water. This form of entertainment apparently evolved from rice farmers messing about in paddy fields, which I can well imagine, having seen a lot of these water logged fields over the last year filming this show.
We immediately encountered a problem – Vietnamese people have much smaller feet than me, so the biggest waders they had were a size 9. There was no way I could stand in them, so only Ricky entered the water with two of the puppeteers to begin his lesson on how to perform with these heavy metal characters. They started him off with a water squirting dragon (predictable hilarity ensued) and then moved on to some more tricky characters like a swimmer, while I shouted encouragement from the sidelines. Then I went out to the front to watch Ricky’s first performance with the winner of the best water puppeteer competition (there are 4 theatres left in Vietnam that practice this traditional form of theatre).
He did surprisingly well, and at most points I couldn’t work out which performer was operating which puppet, although his swimmer looked more like a drowner… Unfortunately for him, at one point he bent over too low backstage and his waders filled up with sticky stagnant water, but he soldiered on and by mid afternoon, before the tourists descended for today’s performance, we had a great little film in the bag about something utterly unique. And I didn’t have soggy underpants like Ricky.