Theatre review: Karen Tan gives Emily Of Emerald Hill a great maternal warmth

We have had the pleasure of welcoming a bevy of Emily Gans onto the stage.

The first was Malaysian actress Leow Puay Tin, a bold move in 1984 when the challenge of a two-hour, one-woman show was baulked at. Margaret Chan cemented the role in the Singapore consciousness by premiering it here a year later, her Emily a proper iron lady. Ivan Heng brought a new dimension to the character with his flamboyant, gender-bending take and introduced it to a broad demographic. He credits actress Pearlly Chua for inspiring him; she recently gave her 200th performance as the magisterial matriarch in Malaysia.

And now, for the opening of the Esplanade's ambitious theatre retrospective, popular stage actress Karen Tan steps into the beaded slippers and tailored kebaya of the queen of Emerald Hill, whose story goes from rags to riches and then back to emotional rags, from a quivering 14-year-old bride to the undisputed head of her clan.

Director Aidli "Alin" Mosbit has opted for as much intimacy as possible with a thrust stage, allowing Emily to walk out with the audience on all sides. Emily's trademark rosewood chair and rotary dial telephone still take centrestage in a space that is otherwise clean and bare.

It is not easy to reinterpret a character that so many have attempted before, but Tan manages to give her Emily an utterly different presence.

She is firm but not draconian, tough but never icy. Her Emily is surprisingly, touchingly maternal. We feel less of Emily's rough climb to the top of the splintered rungs in her hierarchical, traditional family, but more of the deep love for her children and husband that she often finds so difficult to express.

In what were likely opening night jitters, Tan had the tendency to speed through some of the running paragraphs as though they were checklists, tripping over them a few times along the way. The monologue is a very difficult one, full of long swathes of rich narrative and a multitude of voices and registers, demanding that the actress talk to a host of invisible characters and to also be the embodiment of those invisible lines of social class - perfect English to the expatriates in Cold Storage, coarse and friendly Hokkien with a vegetable seller in the wet market.

Some design decisions gnawed at me, including the kitschy use of light to force emotional peaks and troughs into scenes when less might have been more.

But Tan is at her best in those quiet, heartbreaking moments where she offers the audience a glimpse of Emily's fragility. There is a particular scene in which she chokes back tears as she gets her servants to help her make ice-cream, a food associated so much with comfort and celebration, but also a reminder of the greatest loss of her life. And the restraint that Tan shows makes it even more gutting.

Revivals of Emily often beg the question - have we had our fill of this beloved Peranakan bibik? Many might say yes, but I think not. I think many of us might relate to Emily in the same way we do Singapore's preoccupation with nostalgia. Emily is a snapshot of an older time. To bring her back too often makes her presence oppressive and campy, but to forget her would be to dismiss one of our first and most lasting contemporary classics, a play written in our vernacular and fleshing out a familiar part of our landscape after decades of expatriate theatre.

"What were you born for?" Emily's mother lashes out, before abandoning her. What was she born for? The Emily of the Stella Kon play might have asked herself this question every day, through all the seemingly futile sacrifices she made for her family, all the power gained for their benefit. But Emily the play itself was born for this very reason, I suppose, to be the woman who finally made Singapore theatre recognisable, and approachable.

corriet@sph.com.sg

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

Emily Of Emerald Hill is sold out. For more information, go to www.thestudios.com.sg