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“Emily of Emerald Hill” by Wild Rice

March 12, 2011

Event: “Emily of Emerald Hill” by W!ld Rice (as part of their 10th anniversary celebration)
Venue: Esplanade Theatre
Run: 3rd Mar – 12th Mar 2011

A Faultless Performance

The marketing campaign leading up to this production was hard to miss, when you consider the numerous newspaper ads, taxi ads, media articles, the giant banner outside the Esplanade, and even the viral Facebook music video (set to Madonna’s “Material Girl”) specially shot just to promote this play.

Indeed, a revisit by the brilliant Ivan Heng – “the quintessential thespian” (in the words of Dr K K Seet) – to the iconic role of Emily Gan in “Emily of Emerald Hill” is not an event to gloss over.

I had read that this production had an enormous budget, which would at first seem a bit puzzling since it is after all a play with just one actor involved, but as you sit through the play and see the various sets and multimedia displays unfold seamlessly before your eyes, it’s not difficult to see how the money was spent.

Performing a one-man act lasting two hours in front of a packed Esplanade Theatre is not a scenario for the faint of heart, but if there is any thespian in Singapore who has the big enough personality and talent to pull it off, it would be Ivan Heng.

It was back in 2000 when Ivan played the role at the Raffles Hotel Jubilee Hall, and that production of “Emily” marked the birth of W!ld Rice, a theatre company which has since helped shape the course of local theatre in its own unique way.

And he has chosen to cap off the 10th anniversary celebrations of W!ld Rice beautifully by reprising the beloved role of “Emily”, not unlike the way the stage character brought things full circle by waltzing off at the end to the jazz standard “The Way You Look Tonight”, the very same tune she first waltzed onto the stage with at the beginning.

Indeed, you could probably say that Ivan Heng just could not put a foot wrong throughout the entire performance, even if he tried.

His brash but likeable interpretation of Emily had the entire Esplanade Theatre eating out of the palm of his hand, and his charisma and stage presence went a long way in (dare I say it?) entertaining the largely ticklish audience right from the get-go.

That is not to say that the play is all fluff.

Stella Kon’s revered text tells the slightly tragic story of the once-mighty Peranakan matriarch who experiences two major setbacks in her life – the death of her eldest son and the death of her husband, and how she comes to terms with these incidents.

The multi-layered makeup of the Emily Gan character demands for a gifted thespian to bring out the full complexities of the script, because it is the character itself that makes the play, and Ivan Heng dealt with it adeptly.

One is unlikely to round off a discussion of this latest Ivan Heng production without at least a brief dwelling on the most recent interpretation of this role – Margaret Chan’s reprise during last year’s Singapore Arts Festival at the Victoria Theatre.

Comparisons are inevitable for those who have had the honour of witnessing both interpretations.

While Ivan Heng excelled in certain aspects, Margaret Chan excelled in others.

What I felt made a deep impact on me during Margaret Chan’s performance was the way she portrayed herself trying to win the favour of her mother-in-law.

I thought she play that bit brilliantly and was able to show her full range of acting chops in the way she tried to manipulate her way through family politics and become the most favoured daughter-in-law.

At once she was a domineering matriarch, fully in charge of all domestic affairs in the household, and at once she was a sweet, demure, eager-to-please daugther-in-law by the side of her mother-in-law, at her very beck and call.

But that is a discussion for another day.

For now, full credit goes to Ivan Heng for pulling off an immensely well-received and successful production of “Emily of Emerald Hill”.

W!ld Rice has certainly come a long way, and this is a beautiful way to cap off a fine 10 years of existence.

One can only lick one’s lips in anticipation of the fine offerings from the company in the next 10 years.

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