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A Truly Ballsy Emily of Emerald Hill

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Ivan Heng as Emily Gan in a 2011 restaging of Stella Kon’s classic monologue

I’d forgotten what it was about families and society in general that made me rebel as a teenager. Stella Kon’s classic study of a Nyonya matriarch in postwar Singapore – the highly acclaimed Emily of Emerald Hill – brought it all home to me. For hours, no, for days after seeing Emily for the third time (each time with a different Emily), I was awash in an ocean of memories and long-forgotten feelings. Such is the power and scope of Stella Kon’s 1983 masterpiece that it holds up admirably to repeated scrutiny, regardless of who’s playing Emily Gan. In this particular instance, it was a remarkably talented bloke named Ivan Heng – but more about Ivan later.

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Doing Emily in drag… twice!

The subject matter of the monologue is complex indeed – and far too rich for any short essay or review to do it justice. Doctoral dissertations can be (or ought to be) written about Emily of Emerald Hill. But in the final analysis, it’s all about life… and control issues… and thwarted love, deformed by ambition.

As a dramatic text, Emily of Emerald Hill deserves the highest accolades. Rarely does a playwright hit on such a mother lode of inspiration and succeed in crafting it into such an unforgettable theater experience.

The first Emily Gan I saw was played to perfection by Leow Puay Tin. Her transcendental performance permanently imprinted the aesthetic pleasure of witnessing an excellent monologue brilliantly realized for the stage. For me, Emily Gan will always look like Leow Puay Tin – just as the Professor Higgins I know bears a striking resemblance to Rex Harrison.

True, I never saw Margaret Chan’s interpretation of Emily Gan – and thus must beg her pardon for my unreasonable bias. However, I caught the revival of Emily starring Pearlly Chua – whose meticulous portrayal was impressive, but a touch too soap operatic for my taste.

So how did Ivan Heng fare as the latest incarnation of Emily Gan? First of all, anyone who saw Ivan in Ovidia Yu’s Woman in a Tree on a Hill or in his autobiographical Journey West is probably an ardent fan of this ebullient theatrical prodigy from Singapore. Ivan Heng is incredibly talented and always watchable – even when he’s having a little fun at his own and the audience’s expense. In other words, Ivan’s pretty damn good even when he’s plain showing off.

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Ivan Heng with a model of his new Emily of Emerald Hill set

With Krishen Jit as dramaturgical catalyst and sounding board, Ivan created a savvy and sophisticated Emily Gan. Or, as an astute reviewer put it, Ivan’s Emily had balls. His flamboyance got almost burlesque at moments, but the strength of Stella Kon’s text grounded the action in the human dimension at all times.

The jazzy and staccato lighting by Mac Chan was adventurous and actually worked very well – except at moments when the audience was blinded by the irritatingly intrusive glare of a “chandelier” in the Gan mansion and the house lights would come on, compelling audience participation (that’s a little too in-your-face if you ask me). An elaborate art deco set by Raja Maliq appeared quite redundant after a while. It was extremely tasteful nevertheless, never mind the visual incongruity of the giant framed screens upon which colors and images occasionally played. That’s Krishen Jit’s signature motif, the wayang kulit screen.

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Emily of Emerald Hill reloaded

For any accomplished actress (or actor), playing Emily Gan is the equivalent of a solo Channel crossing for a championship swimmer. Ivan Heng, I’m happy to report, made it to the opposite shore (he couldn’t possibly have failed, such is his reserve of sheer prowess). but whenever I hear the name “Emily Gan” I can’t help but see someone who looks like Leow Puay Tin. It’s hard to improve on perfection. I only hope Puay Tin will do Emily one more time – and let herself be filmed for posterity.

15 October 1999

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