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Legendary director commands centre stage

Update: May, 19/2013 - 04:22

Taking a bow: Youth Theatre members and artists during an anniversary ceremony. The theatre was established on April 10, 1978. Nhan is rightfully stood at the centre of the front row. — VNA/VNS PhotoPhuong Hoa

by Nhat Huy

Revolutionary. Pioneer. Trailblazer. Just some of the words that could be used to describe Viet Nam's first stage director Ha Nhan. But aside from acclaim for the professional, what do we really know about the person?

Her real name is Ly Thi Tien but when she adopted her alias on joining the country's revolution and continued to be known as Ha Nhan thereafter.

Considered one of the driving forces behind the inauguration of the Vietnamese stage, she has performed in and directed many plays, said People's Artist Le Khanh.

"Nhan is a great teacher for helping us to improve our roles on the stage. Her experience is invaluable. We are proud of her," Khanh said.

Nhan was born in Xa Cau Commune of Ung Hoa District, Ha Tay Province, which is now Ha Noi.

She left home aged 15 to help the country's resistance war against the French by joining youth and women's organisations to mobilise local people for the Vietnamese anti-illiteracy campaign to spread the national romanised written language known as quoc ngu.

Nhan also joined efforts to rescue people from a huge starvation in early 1945 before the country went on to win the August revolution.

In 1946 she joined the Communist Party of Viet Nam and was appointed to the Women's Union Executive Board of Hai Phong to promote women's activities against the French, who were trying to dominate Viet Nam again.

Four years later she was arrested by the French and put into May Chai Prison where she and prison mates used drama as a tool in their struggle with the enemy.

Nhan recalled: "The jailer told me that I was very much a Viet Minh (Viet Nam League for Independence Front) revolutionary follower when he saw me use an old prison instrument to lead my comrades in singing Tien Ve Ha Noi (Advance Toward Ha Noi) by patriotic composer Van Cao."

However, after four months in prison, the enemy couldn't find any evidence to prove that Nhan was a Viet Minh so they had to release her.

She was then appointed to work in the northwestern province of Hoa Binh's Women's Union Executive Board.

She said she would have become an active revolutionary fighter were it not for a chance 1952 meeting with composer Tran Hoan and singer Vu Trong. Trong, who later became the deputy general director of the Cinematography Association, had came to recruit actors and actresses for the interregional ensemble troupe.

"Hoan realised my aptitude chose me for the troupe. At first I refused his invitation because I thought I could better aid women's activities and didn't know anything about performing.

"But the revolutionary organisation told me that performing on the stage is also an important role and encouraged me to accept Hoan's invitation," Nhan recalled.

She thought she would play a subordinate role in several plays and intended to return to work at the women's association after a short stint.

Matriarch: Ha Nhan (front left) with her family, who have supported her throughout her incredible stage career.

But as soon as she joined the troupe, she was chosen to act as the character Cuc in the play Du Kich Thon Doi (Guerrillas at Doi Commune).

"I was taught verbally by the play director on how to read and how to perform without any formal acting lessons. But when the curtain was down, director Long Chuong praised me and said I was a good actress," Nhan recalled.

Since then Nhan has played many different characters such as a female guerrilla in the play Chi Chien (Sister Chien) or a farmer being abused and mistreated in the Cuoc Doi Bi Danh Cap (Life is being Stolen) as well as a heroic mother in the play Ba Me Du Kich (Guerrilla Mother).

Nhan remembered playing a wicked female landlord named Han Du in the play Doi Co Tam (Ms Tam's Life) so successfully that it made many audiences angry. They threw their shoes at her on the stage and cried out loudly "you stealer" "you tight-wad" and "you wicked landlady."

"To become the character, I have to seek a real life model. Finally, I found a metal shop owner in Ha Noi's Bat Dan Street and stood in front of her shop for a week watching to pick up character traits for my role," Nhan said.

After these successes, Nhan was appointed to work at the Central Arts Troupe and sent to study stage directing at the Moscow University of Stage in 1956.

At the university, apart from studying and directing several plays, Nhan also joined many plays as a performer, such as Two Pennies by Bertolt Brecht of Germany, she said.

After graduating, Nhan returned to Viet Nam and became the first female director of the modern age. She directed many plays including Hai Cay Phong (Two Birches) for the Central Theatre for Children and Phien Da (Block of Marble) for the Central Theatre of Traditional Opera.

When the Central Theatre for Children was closed in 1971, Nhan successfully persuaded the Culture Ministry to set up the Youth Theatre and invited director Pham Thi Thanh to join the venture.

As a result, construction of the Youth Theatre at 11 Ngo Thi Nham Street, Ha Noi, was finished by 1979 with Nhan at the helm.

"I will never forget the first play directed by Thanh at the new Youth Theatre – it drew in a huge audience," said Nhan, adding that she was delighted people, particularly youths, in the capital had their own theatre to relax in every night after a hard working day.

Nguyen My Quyen of the National Economics University said she and friends would often visit the theatre on weekends to enjoy plays.

Artist Chi Trung said "We should never forget our former director Ha Nhan who has helped us massively in our stage careers. We placed Nhan's statue in our theatre and she is forever in our hearts."

Le Khanh said the Youth Theatre is the only one in the north renowned for maintaining its regular selection of plays every week, attracting hundreds of people who are enthralled by the vivid performances.

Nhan's students include many successful actors and actresses such as Le Hung, Le Khanh, Lan Huong, Chi Trung, Ngoc Huyen, Minh Hang, and Anh Tu.

Le Quy Hien, a drama writer, said Ha Nhan was the first person to encourage him to embrace the stage, because Hien knew little about the medium at that time.

As a result, Hien's script Mua Thi Phia Truoc (Examination Season Ahead) was successfully adapted into a play, attracting hundreds of school children to the theatre and receiving rave reviews from critics, Hien recalled.

He said Nhan is forever the artist of the people, her colleagues and students. — VNS

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