Emily of Emerald Hill

by Stella Kon
The Esplanade: The Studios - fifty
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

Emily of Emerald Hill is a play so firmly lodged in our theatrical consciousness that it comes as no surprise that it was chosen to kick off the Esplanade's unprecedented Studios season, fifty, featuring full-length revivals of and dramatised readings from fifty local plays over the span of five weeks. In the three decades since it was written, Stella Kon's monodrama has seen numerous revivals, both locally and abroad, including acclaimed productions featuring Margaret Chan and Ivan Heng. It's been the subject of academic commentary, a museum exhibition and even a musical adaptation. And this is in no small part to the wonderful character of Emily Gan: wife, mother and Peranakan matriarch par excellence.

So I suppose the natural question one would ask is, "How is she?". Does Karen Tan, stepping into the celebrated role for the first time in this intimate production directed by Aidli 'Alin' Mosbit, do justice to the kebaya?

Photo Credit: Esplanade

Tan is a more than capable actor who has shown tremendous empathy in productions such as Frozen, Goh Lay Kuan and Kuo Pao Kun and To Whom It May Concern. Yet, I sense that she has not quite slipped under the skin of Emily. It takes a certain dramatic flair and chutzpah to command the stage for a full ninety minutes, conjuring up a gilded world of culture and tradition and an eclectic host of characters. Despite a very earnest effort, Tan feels like she has not quite warmed up for her big moment in the spotlight.

Part of this is due to the fact that she tears through the first couple of pages of the script, occasionally stumbling over the words and not letting their weight and intensity delicately descend upon the audience. It's a skill which an actor like Ivan Heng in particular excels at, giving his Emily a solid, three-dimensional presence. Although Tan does eventually find her groove, one never gets the feeling that she's completely at one with the character.

Still, there are plenty of moments when Tan's emotion shines through the polished façade of Emily's exterior. In a heartwrenching scene, she orders her servants to churn ice-cream, her voice catching as she remembers that it was her late son's favourite food. In another sequence, she describes her anguish at being prevented from seeing her emotionally estranged husband while he lies on his deathbed in the hospital. Tan reminds us, in her own powerful way, that for all Emily's domestic achievements, her greatest failure in life was not managing to please her husband and eldest son despite her best efforts.

Photo Credit: Esplanade

Set designer Wong Chee Wai opts for a minimalist look with a white thrust stage surrounded by the audience on all three sides. It's a return to the basics of storytelling, using nothing more than the audience's imagination to conjure up a colourful world marked by family, food and festivity.

It's however frustrating that sections of the play have been embellished with tedious effects and props; this is a common pitfall directors face when dealing with large amounts of text. There are bizarre spots of light between scenes and voice effects during seminal speeches that detract from the rich cadences of the dialogue. The image of Emily dragging out a giant patchwork quilt towards the end also proves a clunky visual metaphor. It would have served Alin and her team well to keep the production as clean and unaffected as possible.

On a final note, it's important to ask if this Emily adds anything new to a piece of theatre which already boasts such a rich cultural history. While it's far from a definitive staging, where this Emily excels is in bringing out the quiet loneliness of growing old. The image that ultimately lingered with me was of an elderly Emily left alone in a crumbling mansion, sounds of construction pressing in upon her from all sides, the life she described in so much loving detail nothing more than a distant memory. The play becomes less of a treatise on Peranakan culture and a simpler, more human story about a once formidable person who is reduced to being a spectator amidst a relentless tide of change. It's perhaps a slightly depressing way to view the play but in the context of a society where the old perennially makes way for the new, this might well be the way to take Emily into the twenty-first century.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

*This review was written for The Flying Inkpot.

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