Classical theatre in Asia

A look into some of Asia's rich and vibrant theatre traditions that have stood the test of time.

A look into some of Asia’s rich and vibrant theatre traditions that have stood the test of time.

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Asia has a rich theatre culture that is steeped in traditions that have developed over centuries; it has a history of performance that lives on strongly today. If you’re visiting the continent, it is worth thinking about catching a performance along the way, or several as there is a lot of variety on offer.

In fact it can be quite daunting when deciding what tickets to buy as each country has its own stylisations. However there are certain facets that can be recognised across the board, particularly the use of puppets; from Vietnamese water puppetry to Japanese bunraku, the use of puppets is diverse and quite incredible in places.

Although it would be impossible to detail all of the performances or even genres that can be discovered in one article, below is an insight into Asia’s theatre culture, with a few top suggestions from us of things that you will not want to miss. However, we would recommend doing your own research before you travel, particularly finding out the schedules of local performances.


Japanese theatre is a diverse art form, however there are three major strains of classical theatre, all of which are recognised as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, and all of which can be seen today in many venues throughout Japan.

Bunraku – Japanese puppet theatre – is a unique and interesting art form, and one that has evolved over many centuries. The puppets are large, perhaps two thirds the size of a person, and are controlled by three actors, all dressed in black, who move with such an incredible cooperation that they are able to bring the puppets to life: they can give them intricate expressions and small, yet heartfelt, movements. Although the performers themselves are visible on stage, a certain degree of the charm comes from seeing these actors at work. The entire performance is voiced by one actor, a narrator who also voices each character, so that the puppetry is an illustration of the story being told.

Noh is a form of theatre that is centred on song and dance, and focused heavily on the traditional; traditional theatrics and traditional stories which tend to centre on the spiritual and mystical. It is not surprising that this art form is so steeped in history as there are five major troupes, all of which have been performing for centuries, some dating back as far as the 1300s. These shows take the form of a selection of very standardised tales, performed by an all male cast, in a square stage with a roof supported by four pillars, three of whose sides are open, whilst the back wall has a pine tree painted onto it. The use of masks, costumes and props are integral to the portrayal of character and emotion, the noh is quite serious, but is broken up by comic interludes, called kyogen.

Kabuki – what really typifies the kabuki genre of theatre is the theatricality of performance; over-the-top showmanship, costumes, makeup, wigs, and acting. The highly-stylised use of movement and creation is what tells the story. This gives meaning to an otherwise quite unintelligible dialogue: performed in old-fashioned language that even natives can struggle to understand. Kabuki is a fun and quasi-interactive experience, the stage contains a footbridge that branches out over the audience, allowing the characters to enter or exit through the crowd.


The classical theatre of Vietnam is steeped in the traditions of Chinese opera, as well as varied traditional forms of Vietnamese drama, which permeate and shape the modern art form. Three major strains of this type of Vietnamese theatre are still popular today.

Roi nuoc – water puppetry – is perhaps the most well-known amongst tourists, and has been a part of Vietnamese culture for almost 1,000 years. Performers stand in a waist-deep pool of water, with a screen between themselves and the audience, controlling puppets by using long poles beneath the water, which acts as a stage for the puppets to ‘stand’ on. The stories are focused on Vietnamese folklore and rural traditions: these are stories that have been passed down for generations and would be instantly recognisable to natives.

Hat tuong is Vietnamese traditional opera theatre that comes from Chinese traditional opera, however it is now markedly different, taking its own spin on the genre. Hát tuồng is reported to have come from the 13th century when a famous Chinese actor was imprisoned by the Vietnamese and forced to teach his secrets to the royal children. Although it remained an elite art form for centuries, it is now widely accessible and performances can be attended by everyone including foreign visitors. These performances are typified by a selection of stock characters, over-theatrical acting and elaborate makeup and costumes.

Cai luong – modern folk opera – is perhaps more popular than its more traditional counterpart. Coming to fruition in the early 1900s, it encompasses far more contemporary concepts and has evolved to even include electric guitars in certain performances. The focus of the plots are stories about daily life in modern day Vietnam.


There are many forms of traditional theatre in Thailand, two of the major branches are likay and khon mask performances, both of which can be seen today in many different settings.

Likay is characterised by its reliance on audience interaction and the incredibly excessive use of flamboyant costumes and makeup. It takes the form of semi-improvised performances that are steeped in the traditional folk-stories of Thailand. Whilst there are stock characters and recurring story lines, each performance is individual, only necessarily vaguely sticking to the folk traditions. Crucially, every performance delineates the triumph of good and evil: a clear moral message is present. Actors play out scenes and tailor their performance to their audience, with some characters (particularly the ‘joker’) directly interacting with the viewers. Likay is a fun, personal and informal theatrical experience.

Khon mask performances are also a very popular, classical genre that is structured on Thai traditional dance performances and, as the name suggests, uses very ornate and detailed masks and costumes. Khon performances are centred on epic storytelling and feature four traditional characters; the heroine, the hero, the ogre and the monkey (which is the most important). Khon performances can be found in many countries, including Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia, however Thai performances differ in that they stress realism in the movements of the monkey. Complex and realistic, yet elaborate and beautiful, it takes an agile and talented actor to do justice to this multi-layered character.

Some Theatre Tips

It would be impossible to give anywhere near a comprehensive list or guide, to classical theatre in Asia; it is down to personal preference which performances you will want to see. However below are few extra tips and suggestions to help you if you’re in this continent and thinking of where you might want to go.

  • The Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre is a real hidden gem in Bangkok’s theatre scene. Mostly frequented by locals, they put on fantastic Khon mask performances; it really is well worth a visit. Performances take place every Thursday and Friday at 7.30pm, and if you purchase your tickets at the Grand Palace you get a discounted price compared with tickets on the door. Check out their website for more details :
  • If you’re heading to Japan you should try to fit in at least one classical theatrical performance – they offer a privileged insight into Japanese culture. The National Theatre in Tokyo is a particularly prestigious venue where all kinds of performances are put on throughout the year. They have impressive bunraku performances, about four different shows per year, all running for 2-3 weeks, and with English headsets available there really is no reason not to go! Check out their website for a full schedule:
  • Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, in Hanoi, offers visitors an interesting introduction to Vietnam’s water puppetry; with performances that are quite short it is a great opportunity to take children for some fast-paced entertainment. Check out their website for more details :
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