Mandalay is considered the centre of Myanmar's culture and there are, among others, two very different performances to see: the "Moustache Brothers" and the Mandalay Marionettes Theatre.
The Moustache Brothers are three brave men, Lu Maw, Lu Zaw and Par Par Lay, who for years have given live performances combining comedy, classical Burmese dance and satirical comments about the repressive military regime. In 1996 they told jokes about the generals at Aung San Suu Kyi’s compound in Yangon; they were arrested, and Lay and Zaw served almost six years of a seven-year sentence in a labour camp for criticising the government. Amnesty International led a campaign for their release. Lu Maw, who escaped detention, kept a show going with his wife. Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were released in 2002 and were “blacklisted”, preventing them from performing at outside events. So they performed at home until the regional army commander summoned Lay and told him not to stop that. However, their fame had spread to western tourists. The three “brothers” decided to perform without costumes just for the foreign tourists, explaining to the commander that they were not really performing, only “demonstrating” a performance. Since then, they were left alone on the condition they only perform in English for foreign tourists. On 25 September 2007, Par Par Lay was arrested again during crackdowns following anti-government protests, but after 36 days in prison, he was released and performed again with his troupe.
Lu Maw, the only English speaker, did the commentary using an antique microphone, made jokes and explained when his wife demonstrated classic Burmese dance routines. The group posed with signs displaying that they were under surveillance by the FBI, the KGB and Mossad, and when Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, showed her photo and made fun of the generals. As long as the audience only consisted of foreigners who would leave the country anyway, they got away with it. In August 2013, Par Par Lay died from kidney disease, allegedly caused by the lead paint on the walls of a water tank that he drank from in prison. Lu Maw and Lu Zaw then continued to perform as the Moustache Brothers as a duo.
Myanmar Puppetry goes back centuries and was not only for entertainment but also a high art held in much esteem by all classes. Marionettes were a means of making people aware of current events, educating the people in literature, history and religion, and displaying lifestyles and customs. The Mandalay Marionettes Theatre was opened in 1986 by two female founders, Ma Ma Naing and Naing Yee Mar, and since then, hour-long performances have been given in a small theatre. Five traditional musicians sit on the floor before a small stage. They play the drums and the “Hneh”, a kind of oboe. The show starts with a musical intro, including a performance on the “Saung”, a traditional harp with a boat-shaped hollow base and sixteen strings. It is followed by puppeteer performances, different scenes, and dances; the puppeteers are sometimes hidden from a curtain but fully shown on other occasions. It is an excellent performance of Burmese culture, music and folk art.