There’s a folk verse in Vietnam that tells about a lazy guy who does not want to do anything but could not resist the attraction of a Cheo play, which has played a very important role in Vietnamese cultural life for a long time and is considered the oldest and most popular folk music performance in Vietnam.
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When did the Cheo appear?
Cheo is believed to have originated in the 11th century, and has its roots in village festivals in the Red River Delta.
After crops harvest, the farmers hold the festivals which include a series of activities such as plays, Cheo singing, etc. to exchange the information as well as to make new relationships. Since then, many national Cheo repertoires which are considered treasures of the traditional stage are created, expamples are Truong Vien, Kim Nhan, Luu Binh – Duong Le and Quan Am Thi Kinh…
Like many ancient performance arts, Cheo is an oral one with stories composed by anonymous author-performers and orally “passed on” to fellow performers. In this folk art performance, stories which can be legends, poetry, history or even daily life are the most important, “whenever there are stories, we have Cheo”.
Also, brought into the play are acrobatic scenes and magic. Cheo tells tales of chiefs, heroes and lovely maidens and offers an eclectic mix of romance, tragedy and comedy. These stories are performed by folk songs with pantomime, instrumental music and dances, combined with instructive or interpretative sketches.
Beside the stories, the characters are the soul of a play. Like Tuong, Cheo uses standard stock characters -usually a hero, a heroine and a clown- who are instantly recognizable to the audience. Cheo stories may sometimes be romantic or tragic but the clown or buffoon always comment on the action in an amusing or satirical way as well as to mock pompous, ridiculous or dishonest characters. Providing a link between the performers and the audience, he shoots shafts of satire at evil-doers, such as ignorant witchdoctors, greedy landlords, or arrogant mandarins. A couple of buffoons may appear on stage, for instance, the master in a flowing gown and his servant in a short coat and carrying a stick, each speaking the language and behaving in the ways of his class. The buffoon might perform right at the initial scene of a play, carrying a torch or a megaphone and provoking wild laughter of the audience. The clowns present a comic portrayal of social life, with ridiculous, satirical words and gestures, and reduce the audience to tears of laughter.
A Cheo play can not be complete without stage. The play could be put on the stage of a large theatre, but also be performed successfully on one or two bed mats spread in the middle of a communal house. The Cheo drum was traditionally used like a church bell with magical sounds. Upon hearing, villagers cannot resist coming to see the play. The costumes, make-up and gestures are very simple and base on each character of the play.