Return of the matriarch

Theatre company Wild Rice is restaging Emily Of Emerald Hill, with Glen Goei (left) as the play’s director and actor Ivan Heng (left) set to reprise his role as the eponymous Peranakan matriarch.
Theatre company Wild Rice is restaging Emily Of Emerald Hill, with Glen Goei (left) as the play’s director and actor Ivan Heng (left) set to reprise his role as the eponymous Peranakan matriarch.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Ivan Heng is set to reprise his role in Stella Kon's Emily Of Emerald Hill, which Wild Rice is bringing back as part of the grand opening season of its new theatre space

Actor Ivan Heng has played Emily Of Emerald Hill 112 times and he is set to reprise the role of the Peranakan matriarch for another 28 performances.

Wild Rice is bringing back Stella Kon's classic one-woman show as part of the grand opening season of the company's spanking new 358-seat theatre space at Funan mall.

Heng, 54, says of the role: "Stella has written a fully fleshed, authentic character that's very complex."

Director Glen Goei, who also directed Heng in Wild Rice's 2011 staging of the show at the Esplanade, thinks that one of the reasons why Emily resonates with so many people is that she is "drawn from a lot of real people, and one in particular - Stella's grandmother".

The 56-year-old adds: "I had the great fortune to know the 'real' Emily. Stella's grandmother was a good friend of my mother's and she used to come to our house to play mahjong."

Heng, who has said in previous interviews that he would like to revisit the role every decade, says he was so moved by the play when he first saw it in 1999 that he cried: "To see my life being reflected back at me validated my experience - who I am in the world. It was like my mum and my family, the things we do at Chinese New Year, the food we ate, the things we are obsessed with."

Kon's 1984 script might be about a Peranakan family, but Heng who has performed it in cities from Hong Kong to Melbourne says he has had Italian, Japanese, Irish, even German people coming up to him to say: "This is my grandmother."

Goei points out: "Women's roles in the family and in society, it's changed a bit but not much, especially in Asia. We live in a patriarchal society."

  • BOOK IT/EMILY OF EMERALD HILL

  • WHERE: The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ Wild Rice Funan Level 4, 107 North Bridge

    WHEN: Tomorrow to Sept 28

    ADMISSION: $20 to $80 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

    INFO: http://str.sg/JZEa

Heng adds: "Her life has no value or meaning except as a wife and a mother. It's a role circumscribed by men."

As he has grown older, he has also found new ways to empathise with the character, and play her in a way that is not so "dragon lady".

"Actors are agents of empathy," he says. "As you live more of life, you have more experiences to draw upon. For Emily to find fulfilment and happiness, the only way she knows to do it is to take care of everyone. It comes from her feeling of abandonment."

The staging of Emily in the close confines of the new theatre, where the audience is snuggled up no more than 12m from the stage, will make for a more intimate reading than the last show in the 2,000-seat Esplanade hall.

 
 

Goei says: "The new theatre space feels like the inside of a grand mansion. The audience will feel as though they're invited to a personal soiree with Emily. It's less performative than the Esplanade version - she can be more intimate as if she's having high tea with her friends."

Revisiting Emily is coming full circle for Heng too, as it was the first production which launched Wild Rice 20 years ago. So it seemed especially apt to mark the company's long journey to a home of its own by restaging the play.

And it makes a statement about the kind of work that Wild Rice is striving to make: "We need to tell the stories of our people. This is what we have been doing for 20 years: telling our stories, creating new works and looking at the classics and what they say to us.

"It is deeply joyful, being in a theatre and sharing stories."

This sort of sharing builds a sense of belonging. As Goei says: "In this age, when everyone is on their iPhones and iPads, we need a sense of community. We need to build that."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2019, with the headline 'Return of the matriarch'. Print Edition | Subscribe