Earlier this afternoon, I watched W!ld Rice’s latest adaptation of “Emily on Emerald Hill” at the newly opened Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ W!ld Rice Funan. Emily was played by Ivan Heng. As you may already know, Emily on Emerald Hill is written by playwright Stella Kon which tells the story of a Nonya at different stages of her life: as a young girl, a young wife, a loving mother and dignified grandmother. These stages of her life are acted out by a single cast member through a 2-hour monologue, which takes you through a myriad of emotions. Emily on Emerald Hill is one of the most well-known plays in the region with countless of retellings by theatre stalwarts such as Margaret Chang, Neo Swee Lin, Pearly Chua, Karen Tan and Ivan Heng. I have watched this play acted by Ivan Heng in 2011, Karen Tan in 2015, Pearly Chua in 2017 and Ivan Heng again in 2019. Each time I saw it, they were very good and different in its own way, but this 2019 version was really special.
Firstly, I must say that this new venue is world-class. The intimacy and closeness of the audience to the stage is beyond anything available in the region. I was seated in the front row and the stage was only an arm’s length away. This closeness enabled Ivan to interact with the audience in ways I have never experienced before. Ivan didn’t just break the proverbial ‘fourth wall’, he demolished it and put a glass door!! Several times during the performance, he interacted with the audience so that the audience felt like they were part of Emily’s life and not just someone looking in. I was extremely lucky to be called to stand up earlier and I felt so happy to be a part of the production. Due to the superb sound staging and acoustics, every footstep, every swish of the baju kebaya and most importantly every little change in Ivan’s tone can be heard and felt so clearly. The costumes used today were beautiful and all the bling on Ivan … WOW !!!
Next,… Ivan Heng. What can I say about Ivan Heng that has not been said and published by countless of international theatre reviewers? Through the years of experiencing Ivan, I have run out of superlatives to describe how good he is. (Some of you readers may be thinking what a fanboy I am. I believe in giving credit where it is due.) Only two actors in Singapore can perform such magic on stage, Adrian Pang and Ivan Heng. Ivan Heng’s portrayal of Emily in 2011 was very good, this time, it was mesmerizingly perfect. His ability to emanate the emotions of joyous elation, enthusiasm, anger and sorrow is second to none. Remember that there are no other cast members but himself. Backdrop, props, lighting are all a small part of this play, 90% of the experience was down to Ivan. Every raise of his eyebrow, every flick of his finger, every shake of his hips, every step he takes is just spot-on. His acting had the audience in a trance, controlling their every emotion, from heart-wrenching sorrow to joy and laughter.
As a bonus at today’s performance, we were taught several important lessons. One was on ‘theatre etiquette’ and the other, the recipe for ‘Babi Buah Keluak.’ As we often experience during theatre performances here in Singapore, there will be a handful of the audience who come late to the performance and those who use their handphones during the show to take a photo. During today’s show, they were called out by Ivan. I am glad that theatre practitioners and artists nowadays call them out because this lack of respect has gone on for too long and theatre goers must learn to respect the cast and the majority of the audience who are on time (at least 15 minutes before the show) and what it means by ‘keep your mobile phone.’ The ‘punishment’ was done in good humour but I think they will never be late again.
The extraordinary atmosphere (due in no small part to the W!ld Rice theatre), inspired imagination and direction of Glenn Goei and Ivan Heng’s flawless acting has made this production an exceptional masterpiece. As 'instructed' by Ivan today, "a memory is not a photo taken by a camera, but more importantly it is something you remember in your mind and in your heart."
As I conclude this, I cannot help but think of the words of the late P. Ramlee, immortalised in “Getaran Jiwa” as the most apt description of my Emily on Emerald Hill 2019 experience -
Getaran jiwa melanda hatiku (Soul vibration hits my heart)
Moga dapat membangkitkan (Hope it could touch you)
Sedarlah akmu wahai insan (You have to realise)
Tak mungkin hilang (Will not be lost)
Thank you W!ld Rice for touching my heart and the hearts of thousands... you truly deserve the ovations...
Emily on Emerald Hill will be showing from the 4 – 28 September 2019 at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ W!ld Rice, Funan. As of time of writing, tickets are extremely limited and or sold out already. My advice is to check regularly (every hour) on the W!ld Rice Facebook page and hope / pray that additional shows are added.