Cheo is a traditional form as well as a typical representative of Vietnamese opera beside “Tuong” and “Cai Luong”. Cheo is a form of art performance that is very popular in the North of Vietnam, especially provinces of the Red River Delta.
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 create new relationships. Since then, many national Cheo repertoires which are considered treasures of the traditional stage are created, examples 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 anon. 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 consist 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 psyche 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 clown 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 example, 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, satiric words, 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.
At present, Cheo is an integral part of Vietnamese theatre and attract not only people in the countryside and in towns but the foreign spectators as well.