>emily of emerald hill by w!ld rice

>reviewed matthew lyon

>date: 29 aug 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: the jubilee hall
>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.


>>>>>(WO)MAN IN A DRESS ON A HILL

Ladies and gentlemen, I have been deflowered. Until the 29th, I was one of the very few people in this country - dammit, this peninsula - to be an Emily virgin. Obviously, this was inappropriate and unsustainable behaviour for someone residing long-term in Singapore - rather akin to living in Bangkok without trying a massage - so I figured I'd better nip down to Raffles Hotel and figure out what keeps you all coming back for more. Maybe it's the free kueh doled out at the interval, maybe it's the - oh, my word, how amusing! - sight of a bloke in a dress, or just maybe, it could be to see a world-class performance from Singapore's own Ivan Heng.

Actually, Heng's excellence was so all-round that it's hard to get specific - you might as well just take a random handful of pages from your dictionary and give him all the complimentary adjectives. Whatever the script required of him, he gave; and whatever the audience required, he gave even harder. A particularly successful departure from the original text saw Heng interacting with audience members: bullying latecomers, teaching needlework to those unlucky enough to sit at the front, and getting everyone in on the act to sing happy birthday or to sell him fish. Heng's wit, timing and his absolute sureness of his character made these diversions highly enjoyable and much more successful than fellow W!ld Ricer, Chowee Leow's somewhat diffident forays into the audience in April's 'An Occasional Orchid' - even though interaction was originally written into this latter, but tacked on as an afterthought to EMILY.

>>'Heng's excellence was so all-round that it's hard to get specific - you might as well just take a random handful of pages from your dictionary and give him all the complimentary adjectives.'


Importantly, the interaction also hastened along the pace of the play, which, on a cold reading, can get bogged down by the weight of its exposition. Director Krishen Jit's production was never in danger of feeling overlong - despite the nearly three hours of stage time it swallowed up - and another reason for this was the decision for Heng to act out the roles of the people Emily meets or speaks about.

Strangely, Heng was at his least convincing when he stepped out of Emily's character to impersonate the various men she knew. But even more strangely, this lack of authenticity was perfect in itself. Whereas Heng may not have acted truly like a man in these parts, he certainly acted like a woman acting like a man. And if you consider that he was actually a man acting like a woman acting like a man, then he did a rather good job altogether. It made me think of my Gran, who, every time she wanted to recount something my brother had said, put on a ridiculously deep and gruff voice, even though my brother was considerably better spoken than she. Presumably, to her ears, it sounded authentic, whereas to mine, it sounded silly - and Heng captured that silliness perfectly.

Having said that, there were occasions where it seemed unnecessary for Emily to "act out" her associates' parts. It got in the way sometimes, especially at the start, and especially where impersonation was used without direct speech. But then, what can you do? If you're gonna do one, you gotta do 'em all, I suppose; and the performance as a whole was stronger, and even deeper, for having this meta-performative aspect.


But with all this light-heartedness going on and the audience lapping it up, it was always going to be difficult to bring everything down again and capture the pathos of a play that has, after all, frequently been described as a tearjerker. This difficulty was seen towards the end of the first act, where Emily flies to England to prevent her son, Richard from throwing away a potential career in law to pursue his dream of teaching horse-riding. This scene of fierce confrontation was played too placidly. Yes, Emily is a victim of circumstance, yes she must often use softness to make her way in the world, but where was the strength that allowed her to control her family and the force of will that drove her son to suicide? Instead, she wheedled and reasoned, coaxing Richard to return to his studies rather than compelling him with her anger and frustration. She was far too rational, and I couldn't help noticing, when the scene was over and Emily had "flown back" to Singapore, that her hair was still impeccable. Fortunately, these were aspects of her character that Heng managed to assimilate by the end of the play, and it was just their absence in this one key scene that was disappointing.

On the other hand, some first-time ang moh is not going to write the definitive review of this production (excellent, versatile set, by the way), so if you want a more qualified voice, I'd better get one for you: coming out of the theatre, my Peranakan friend said that he had just seen his mother on stage. What higher praise?