Types of Characters in Vietnamese Hát Bội: A Quick Guide
“Hát bội” is a traditional performance art in Vietnam, it has a rich historical foundation, and quite an influence on the community. Just like any traditional art form, the stage of Hát bội also consists of Viet aesthetic values, reflecting the life, stories, and aspirations of the common Viet people.
For the staging performance of hát bội, characters hold a crucial factor. Without the characters, other elements such as plot, actions, dialogues…won’t be expressed fully. From then, the performers can have the relevant information to choose the appropriate motifs of musical-dialogue performance, choreography and costume.
“Kép" is a term to describe male characters. Their appearances tend to be young or middle aged male, with a light makeup face (using beard to distinguish). This is a simple makeup style, reserved for characters that are handsome, or ordinary; they tend to be the psychological character that doesn't need dramatic makeup to express their personality. Following the kép motif is the type of singing technique- with graceful and sophisticated dialogues. The common characters from kép motif (or can be called “kép in white") are Tiết Đinh San, Tiết Ứng Luông, Bá Ấp Khảo, etc.
Kép in red: Is a character motif that is based on the characteristics of the kép motif (kép in white), however, the base makeup colour of the character tends to be in bright red
or reddish pink. This is the character type that is loyal and determined in hát bội aesthetic. Example: Quan Vũ; Đổng Kim Lân; Cao Hoài Đức, etc.
Kép in green / Forest kép / Mountain kép: Their face makeup tends to be in faded gray or green; with high eyes and brows (depends on the traditional character design of the region and the troup). This character type tends to have a peasantry manner, down-to-earth, with the colour palette of faded gray and green to indicate a humbling origin as a farming man. Example: Khương Linh Tá; Châu Sáng; etc.
Kép with angry eyes: Is a kép motif that has more than just the general traits, but also a more extravagant styling in costuming. They have a red face makeup base; with a white eyes and dramatic eyebrows that are high up to the temple. This dramatic appearance only reflects their extraordinary characters for a teenage boy. Namely characters like Phàn Diệm; or the character Trịnh Ân that is also a part of kép with angry eyes, but he would have a face makeup colour base in ashy gray or black. This genre of kép with angry eyes, or can be called as “young kép" is often paired with an older character (could be their father- like the characters Phàn Định Công, Trịnh Ân), their extraordinary appearance foreshadowing the talents that would emerge once they are matured.
There are other kép motif branches such as water kép, kép in white, intellectual kép, mix kép, young kép, etc. but these characters are not often portrayed or not so significant in the script.
“Lão" is a term to describe male characters (kép) that are elderly. Their brows and hair are white and gray; unhurried in movements; and a raspy singing-dialogue delivery.
Additionally, there are also different techniques to portray their raspy voice delivery that can be categorised as follow:
Intellectual lão: Include full characteristics of lão motif: white face, gray beard with three/five long smooth branches; educated and sophisticated.Example: Vương Doãn; Kiều Quốc cựu; etc.
Brawny lão: In appearance, they also shared similarities like the lão motif. If there's a difference, then it'd be their face makeup base coloured in red. The difference between intellectual lão and brawny lão- their performance manners. Brawny lão would have more decisive and assertive movements, and a more powerful singing-dialogue delivery.
Saggy lão: Similar to kép with angry eyes motif in kép motif, saggy lão motif is a lão motif that exceeds the usual characteristics and is portrayed in a dramatic styling.
With a red face, a white under eye that extends to the cheeks, white beard; hot-headed and decisive. Example: Phàn Định Công; Trình Giảo Kim; etc.
There are other motifs like mix intellectual lão, fisherman lão, scaredy lão, etc. but they are rare in presence and don't play a significant role in the script, a part of background characters.
“Đào" is a term to describe female characters. Their appearances tend to be young or middle-aged females, where their makeup tends to be light and their presences are elegant, with innocent singing-dialogue delivery. In đào motif, only the character Chung Vô Diệm, Đào Tam Xuân, and Ngọc Kỳ Lân have their makeup as mask-like, the rest of them all have light makeup face. The level 2 of đào motif can be categorised as:
Intellectual đào: Has the general traits of đào motif, elegant and graceful manners; innocent singing and dialogues. In which there is “royal đào" being the type of character that participates in official royal affairs. Example: Tạ Nguyệt Kiều. And then “simple đào/hairpin đào” is a peasant character type, or the character that has a prestige origin but fallen into peasantry; she wouldn't have any fancy headwear but only a simple hair pin. Example: Điều Huê Nữ.
Brawny đào: Possess full traits of đào motif, however she is assertive and stern; powerful singing-dialogue delivery. Example: Thần Nữ; Đoàn Hồng Ngọc; etc. Additionally, the mentioned characters that have mask-like makeup (Chung Vô Diệm, Đào Tam Xuân, Ngọc Kỳ Lân) are a part of brawny đào motif. They are portrayed in a dramatic style to reflect their strong personality and extraordinary talent.
“Mụ" is the type of female character (đào) that is elderly, their makeup tends to be light, with white eyebrows, silver hair, slow in movement; raspy singing-dialogues delivery. The majority of mụ motif are intellectual type, with a gentle and considerate manner. Example: Đổng mẫu; Dương linh bà despite her origin as a fiery general but often expressed as a prestige and sophisticated woman.
Nịnh motif: “Nịnh" is the term to describe the male villain character; tends to have a white face. The level 2 of nịnh motif include:
- Master nịnh: Including all the general traits of the nịnh motif, this character already establishes a powerful standing. Example: tạ Thiên Lăng.
- Feeble nịnh: Also carries the general traits of nịnh motif, although this character hasn't achieved a powerful position. Example: Vưu Hồn, Bí Trọng (the play Bá Ấp Khảo).
Despite the different branches, their technical elements are not too far different in styling, only more distinguishable through manners. If the original nịnh is an arrogant figure, then feeble nịnh is only a coward and sycophant.
Comparing to other motifs, the tướng and yêu đạo (or it can be called as turtle master motif) are the characters that deeply reflect the dramatic element of hát bội practice from their singing-dialogues technique, costuming, to choreography. This has made the audience and connoisseurs pay much attention to this motif.
Tướng motif is the character type that inherit some traits on manners, actions, and choreography of kép that is brawny in type: Assertive, swift, powerful singing-dialogues delivery.
However, the significant detail to pay attention to is their makeup being made as mask-like, which they are diverse with various stylised expressions. Depends on their role in the play,
we have protagonist tướng (the tướng that belongs in the good side and loyal) such as Trịnh Ân, Hoàng Phi Hổ, etc; and villain tướng (the tướng that are evil and vindictive), Ô Lợi Hắc.
The motif can also be deeper understood in its level 2 of formation- major tướng and minor tướng. Major tướng includes the traits that are mentioned above,
with social standing and hold a crucial role in the plot. Minor tướng, on the contrary, are characters that don't hold crucial position in the script like Châu Thương,) Tiết Quỳ, etc.
Similar like tướng motif, yêu đạo motif has a distinctive dramatic element of hát bội. However, yêu đạo tends to be portrayed as villain characters, in which they possess opposite traits from the protagonist, power abuser, with a sense of justice according to feudal law. Moreover, these characters tend to start off with non-human origins, they’ve honed their magical ability to become human so it made their manners appear animalistic. The character makeups are also suggestive of the manners and symbolism of their background. Examples such as Dư Hồng is originally a red bird that trained itself into human form so the eye makeup mimics a bird motif, with a red face makeup base. The design of yêu đạo/ turtle master tends to use weirdly big eyes to express an eerie manner, big tummy to indicate magic (or it could be called bụng phép), with costume similar to the Taoist monks.
Therefore, the characters are not simply a reflection of the vibrant reality, but also an essential selection of different characteristics and a range of human values. In sum, aside from the function of participating in the plot, theatre characters in hát bội have an important function for the technical elements
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