>EMILY OF EMERALD HILL by W!ld Rice

>reviewed by adi soon

>date: 3 may 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the jubilee hall, raffles hotel
>rating: ****1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

                           
>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.
 

>>>>>WELCOME BACK, EMILY

I went to Ivan Heng's EMILY expecting an interpretation that was similar to what I had seen before except that the title character would be played by a man. I was wrong and should have expected it. Confronted with the set, I had already begun to notice differences. It was for one, more expansive, with an increase in the amount of space available to the action. The props were all wrapped up in white paper that reminded me of the kind that is used when things are being stored.

For a moment, with these thoughts lingering, it seemed to allude to the point of the play describing the Japanese occupation and suddenly in my mind's eye, Emily became a ghost haunting her old house! Such was the ability of the play to induce this mind warping effect.

Ivan Heng's EMILY was billed as the EMILY of the new millennium. This was surely an apt description of the play since its manifestation symbolised a revolutionary take on a familiar character. In this overhauled version, perhaps the most significant aspect to show that it deviated from its predecessors was that a man played the title role. The distance that was created between the character and the audience had quite a few advantages as it allowed the audience to escape the emotional trap set by a very engaging story. The embodiment of the other invisible characters within the play could then be taken as more than mere portrayals since heightened dramatic devices such as caricature could be utilised. It was a rendition that became more flowing and more dramatic. The created distance from the character allows it to be evaluated on it's own terms and not as a function of the actor taking on the role.

Furthermore, Heng's maleness also provoked questions of the gender paradox. When Emily lamented the fact that she is a woman, it was a man we realised that was speaking these words as Heng made no attempt to delude the audience. In fact, he seemed to relish the sexual irony very much and made deliberate attempts to remind the audience time and again of it. A sudden flashback to Song Liling from 'M. Butterfly' was at this point unleashed from my mind and I was reminded of her saying, "Why in Beijing Opera are woman's roles traditionally played by men? It's because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act."

>>'Ivan Heng's interpretation worked on many levels to cater to the mainstream and to the more refined sensibilities of an appreciative audience'

Such was this new way of performing EMILY that displaced value from nostalgia, and instead, suggested that the new boundaries of our identity are in constant flux. In having to come to terms with the past that rapidly fades further and further into history, we look to expand and define new boundaries of our identity.

With the less naturalistic approach that was taken, Ivan Heng's interpretation thus worked on many levels to cater to the mainstream and to the more refined sensibilities of an appreciative audience. The play's success in Hong Kong suggested that even people who have no connection to the culture can enjoy the play. It could thus be read from many platforms, a truly rare thing.

The element of audience participation was also another highlight. In the midst of the play the house lights came on, and Emily stepped off stage to lecture the audience on how to make a patchwork quilt. Audience eagerness was literally tested. With already prepared sewing kits placed under the seats of selected audience members, they were asked to take them out and participate in the class. This part of the play was a riot of fun. Momentarily we became members of her sewing class. Divorced from the central theme of the play, this scene was used, of all things to comment on Singaporean kiasu-ness. Though when this play is brought overseas its flexibility can allow it to be adapted for other things.

During the intermission, everyone was told to leave the auditorium. I expected a scene change but was proven wrong. The waiting audience was standing around when suddenly Emily came out, portable microphone and all to transform the area outside the Jubilee Hall into a fish market, assigning characters to hapless audience members and forcing them to interact. It was a delight to experience this constant shift of dynamics in the formerly typical performer-audience relationship. We were able to see the differences between those who were all for it and those who were shy. The show was literally turned on them and at that moment, I learnt more about the audience than the performer. With so many Singaporeans participating so candidly in the play, there is no doubt that this production is more Singaporean than any other that I've watched. Despite the unrehearsed and highly intimate nature of the scene, Ivan Heng did not once flinch from his character portrayal, which says a lot about his remarkable sense of focus and craftsmanship.

The interaction between Emily and the audience, especially during the intermission significantly changed their relationship for the rest of the play. Even the notoriously reserved Singaporean audience was no defence to the barrage of Emily's charm. It is easy for one to accord all credit for such a breakthrough to Ivan Heng but one should never underestimate the innate seductiveness of Stella Kon's Emily. Having created a rapport between the actor and the audience, we were then able to engage ourselves or laugh unabashedly at anything, even at the expense of being made fun of! The infectious quality of this millennium Emily truly knew no bounds. By part two of the play, the audience had clearly fallen in love with her.

By making us laugh at things that we were not supposed to laugh at, most significantly ourselves, it became both an exhilarating game and a relief to shed our uptightness and politically correct façade. To be compatible with the EMILY of the new millennium, perhaps we need an all-new audience such as the one I discovered on this occasion. In this respect, the play strikingly distanced itself from the original to bring to us, an uplifting sense of renewal, instead of mere sentimental nostalgia. Much credit must be given to the creative team at W!ld Rice for achieving a most delicate balance between being true to an iconic play and giving it a sense of relevance and originality to the modern audience.

A word on the set, which was not only beautifully done but purposeful as well. Much care had been put into the lighting. More than being decorative, lighting was cleverly used to assist in bringing minor characters to life. At times, a single spotlight was used in the middle of the stage to signify two different spaces of past and present, which gave Emily a flexible character-switching capacity to make the performance delightfully lively. Heng switched between different characters at such break-neck pace that one barely had time to identify one character to be faced with another.

Ivan Heng is surely a force to be reckoned with. The credibility of his artistry was laid bare for me to see and to tell you the truth, I'm blown away at the experience, and happy that Singapore theatre has something that can be called brilliant.

I wasn't surprised though that the text was not changed. It is something of a tradition to perform the play in its entirety. However, the liberty that was taken with the script showed a creative revitalisation of ideas it contained. What else can I say but bravo to Ivan Heng the actor? With an almost bare stage he was able to take any part of it and invest it with abundant meaning.