Autumn of the Matriarch
Wild Rice plants a classic
By Richard Lord
Emily of Emerald Hill
At a theatre symposium in early July, Krishen Jit, the dean of Malaysian theatre directors, was asked his definition of a "Singapore classic". By way of answer, he named three vintage works, one of which was recently reprised here in Singapore by Wild Rice theatre company. I still have my doubts about the claim to 'classic' status for Kuo Pao Kun's two short monologues (The Coffin's Too Big For The Hole and No Parking On Odd Days), but having seen how Emily of Emerald Hill can be brought to life by Wild Rice persuades me of this play's legitimacy as a Singapore classic.
Emily is itself a full-length monologue that chronicles the long life and changing times of Emily Gan, a prime example of the old Peranakan aristocracy which once held sway in pre-Independence Singapore. The play opens in 1950 with Emily expounding on the fatiguing duties foisted upon a grand dame in a wealthy Singaporean family. Over the next two and half hours, the script backtracks to Emily's sad past, from being abandoned as a child by her newly widowed mother to getting married off as a 14-year-old to a man twice her age, then the clever strategies she employs to ingratiate herself to her mother-in-law, and finally her own triumphant ascendancy to the prime rank of woman of the house. The play also moves ahead as a series of losses, the final to time itself, reduce Emily to an essentially pathetic, if still wealthy, figure.
Playwright Stella Kon shows this rise from the lower depths to the heights of Singapore's Peranakan culture and steady decline from such in a theatrically accomplished manner. Now, long monologues are a notoriously perilous landscape for playwrights, but Kon moves deftly though this landscape. Emily's monologue is actually a shuffle of various devices - direct address to the audience; supposed dialogues or multi-logues with family, guests, or servants; and short personal reflections which reveal the innermost parts of this complex character who otherwise tries to show her society the assured, one-dimensional face her roles require.
These bits are presented in finely balanced verbal riffs, which alternate humour and piercing insight. Actually, the first part of the show proceeds mainly on a humorous track, drawing us in to Emily's carefully polished charms. Along the way, however, the nonplussed Nonya drops unintended clues to problems in her central relationships and other fissures in her seemingly stable world. One of these problems sits like an emotional time bomb, finally detonating to end Act One with a terrible thud. Act Two then draws less and less upon the well of potential humour, as we witness the chilling spectres of Emily's life coming back to haunt her, even as she gamely the inevitable battle with old age.
This movement from the light banter of Act One with its bright fabric of easy humour to the darker threads of narrative are done convincingly and with much craft. What Stella Kon has presented is simply Singapore's edition of a Chekhovian chronicle. Finally, Emily is a portrayal of a moribund society whose slow disintegration of appearance is seen through the personality of one of its emblematic and most pathetic characters. Emily Gan becomes the local model of Chekhov's Madame Ranevsky, and her mansion on Emerald Hill, fated to soon meet a wrecking ball, the Peranakan version of the cherry orchard being subjected to the axe.
I'm not saying that Emily is of the same magnitude as that Chekhov masterpiece. But as the autumnal chills merge with sad echoes of past triumphs to fill out the second act, we are stirred by the minor tragedy of a woman who worked so hard to overcome the injustices done to her as a child, only to find that these very efforts result in the destruction of her marriage and at least one of her children. Kon's Emily could never summon the courage or intense honest to ask, as Michael Corleone did in The Godfather, "Can you lose your family by trying to save your family?", but her poised narrative poignantly shows us how this unintended disaster can happen.
It's not only Stella Kon who shows us this: the superb Wild Rice production brought out all these elements beautifully. A full-length monologue is not a perilous landscape only for the playwright: any actor or director tackling such a piece must move bravely and deftly through this landscape in order to avoid moments of boredom for the audience or a lapsing into cheap mannerisms that amuse but never engage. Ivan Heng, guided by the knowing direction of the same Krishen Jit mentioned above, pulls this off with aplomb.
Heng, rightly considered one of Singapore's most accomplished performers, follows in the Wayang Peranakan tradition of female impersonation but does it so convincingly that we rarely consider that this is really a man performing as a woman. Heng not only gives us the polished surface of Emily Gan, he reaches into all the corners, dark and less dark of this complex creature. The result catches the bitter Chekhovian elements as skillfully as the easy humour of which Heng is a master.
In some important ways, it's actually fitting that this work be performed by a man. (Although Heng was apparently the first male to ever take on the part.) Emily herself is something of a female impersonator: she is still a sensitive, emotionally scarred girl impersonating an infinitely poised grand dame of Peranakan society. As masterfully handled by Ivan Heng, this impersonation is first presented as an intact surface allowing of no leaks from within. But slowly, compellingly Heng and director Jit peel off patches from this surface to expose the wounds below. Ultimately, Emily, whose life comes to playing assigned - or chosen - role after role is wonderfully captured by a man crossing over to play the role of such a woman.
The final triumph of this production comes, appropriately, in the final moments. Here, Heng, Krishen Jit and their technical support staff achieve a truly brilliant conclusion: Emily, seeing all the many moments of her greatness flicker ever more faintly, recalls a favourite tune from her youth. Suddenly, her frail, unsteady legs carry her one more time to centre stage as her beaded-slippered feet lightly retrace the steps she knew so well in her more glorious past.
Chekhov ended his Cherry Orchard with the chilling image of the decrepit but ever loyal servant Firs lying alone on a couch, as the sound of axes slamming into the treasured cherry trees closed out the play. Stella Kon and the Wild Rice team end this classic on a much more upbeat note, with Emily dancing alone to Fred Astaire's rendition of "Dancing Cheek to Cheek". The irony of the song and the solitary shuffle provide a strong measure of poignancy, but this close signifies not the ultimate defeat of the human spirit as does Chekhov's play, but its ultimate partial triumph. As the battered matriarch waltzes towards that elegant staircase once more, this production fully captures the magic that theatre is capable of.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001