Tuesday, 29 October 2002

Emily of Emerald Hill, Oct 29 2002

Emily of Emerald Hill  by Stella Kon 
At Fairfax Studio  October 29 to November 2, 2002

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

It is not the play so much as the performance by Ivan Heng  that makes Emily of Emerald Hill an extraordinary theatrical experience.

Heng plays Emily, a Chinese Singapori woman born early last century who marries into a wealthy Anglophile family.

He may play a woman but there is no parody or predictable drag acting in Heng. His transformation into a believable woman, in the tradition of the Wayang Peranakan  theatre, is total.

Every gesture is accurate and economical. The detail of his portrayal is phenomenal and his timing is impeccable.

Heng shifts effortlessly between Emily as innocent girl, young wife discovering her power and  middle-aged harridan manipulating her family.

There is joy and finesse in Heng's performance. He represents Emily warts and all as the loving, controlling and demanding mother.

Emily slips through time in this episodic play by Stella Kon.  Scenes are not chronological although, by the end, she is an old woman still fantasising about her dead son, Richard.

Kon's script is colourful and smartly written. It captures an entire cultural group that is unfamiliar to us.

What it needs is a rigorous edit. At over two hours it is unwieldy. Heng makes it work with his magical touch.

The pace of the script is a little slow. Heng and director Krishen Jit  keep the rhythm snappy and find some range of pace in it.

There is little dramatic tension as we know all Emily's losses quite early. However, Heng makes us weep with his sensitive rendering of Emily's traumatic moments.

One delightful element is Heng's mercilessly playing to the audience. He makes us his quilt-making students, guests at a birthday party.  He even follows us into the foyer to treat us as a market crowd.

The imposing design by Raja Malik  comprises simple white screens with appliqued geometric designs. It is lit with vivid and wonderful colour by Mac Chan.

Heng's virtuosity is evident as Emily playing her male and female relatives. She is acerbic, competitive, unscrupulous and betrayed.

In spite of her flaws, we love Emily and weep with her over her grief and laugh with her over her quilt making..

By Kate Herbert

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