Thursday, March 10, 2011

Autumn of the Matriarch

Written by Stella Koon and directed by Glen Goei, Emily of Emerald Hill is one of those plays that stays with you long after you have left the theatre. Through Emily’s portrait, essayed by Ivan Heng with masterful ease, we witness an era long gone, now hidden in the fog of history.

This W!ld Rice tenth anniversary production, a solo performance, is set in the post-war Singapore. It tracks the life of Emily, an orphan, who gets married into a rich Peranakan family. As time passes, the family’s wealth grows and Emily, through her wit, charm and savoir faire, rises to become the matriarch of the family.

The structure of the play follows a chronological pattern and Emily’s past, her painful childhood, is evoked through flashbacks. Background score and stage lighting add powerful touches to the performance, taking the audience on a roller coaster ride through time and landscapes—from sunny Singapore to chilly Salisbury and back.

Ivan Heng pulls off the feisty lady’s part with such aplomb that you forget it is a play. He lives the character and becomes the character. He is Emily. Period. Such is the level of verisimilitude achieved by this thespian of Singapore theatre. On a playful note, Heng develops a rapport with the audience right at the outset when late comers get a chiding from him. Patrons in the front seat are startled in some scenes that involve audience participation—a hallmark of W!ld Rice’s productions. It always works—a theatrical conceit cinegoers can never imagine.

One of the ways in which Heng brings Emily’s character alive on stage is through the evocation of the fragrance of food and the feel of the parties that dominated the lives of the everything-British-loving rich of Singapore. The reason why Emily, a complex individual, captures everyone’s heart is because she knows how to glide through the barriers of class and cut through the confines of culture. Switching between languages with a dexterous appeal, she knows equally well how to talk to a school principal and how to chat up a fish seller in the market.

Emily’s power over the members of Emerald Hill is established through her controlling nature—her Achilles’ heel, that culminates into tragedies and disappointments for her in the autumn of her life.

Despite the glory and grandeur of Emerald Hill, Emily ends up an emotional pauper—the historical changes and personal defeats perplex her. She comes across as a person who has outlasted everything that she loved and cared for. In the end, she witnesses the crumbling down of a time and place that she had aspired to hold on to forever. But change is inevitable. Emily seems reluctant to accept the unsettling change around her.

Like his pretty Peranakan outfits, Ivan Heng shines in his role as Emily. All other departments—make up, costumes, sound, set design—beautifully compliment Heng’s performance, spellbinding the audience for nearly two hours without a trouble. For lovers of theatre, Heng’s solo act in Emily of Emerald Hill is a feat and a treat in this Twitterish age of short attention spans.


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