EMILY OF EMERALD HILL by Desert Wine Productions

“An understated Emily”

Reviewer: Meera Nair
Performance: 16 July 2016

Emily of Emerald Hill gets the nomadic treatment in Desert Wine’s production as it roams from non-traditional venues like community centres to traditional venues like Goodman Arts Centre. While each venue will bring with it a different experience, the one constant is the performance.

It is reassuring that the high point of this production is Laura Kee’s performance as Emily. Despite being much too young for the role, she still manages to convince us that she has lived far more than her years. Emily experiences success, loss, grief, and even humiliation. Yet she remains logical and focused at times of crisis, for instance, being a good wife in the face of her husband’s infidelity so that she would, in the eyes of society, remain blameless.

In performing this role, Kee demonstrates a familiarity with the Peranakan culture that is at the core of Emily Gan. She switches effortlessly between English, Malay and Hokkein, and exhibits the body language befitting of a woman who has the grace of a traditional Peranakan woman. She is tireless as the perfect host and narrator, attending to each and every guest and making everyone (including us) feel welcome. Throughout her performance, Kee makes good use of the stage’s space, despite the set occupying a relatively small portion of it. In fact, the set is not at all as stripped down as promised. While there are no elaborate sets or lighting and multimedia enhancements, the stage still contains two wicker chairs, a wooden screen, and table with smaller items like a telephone and glasses, making for a decent set.

The Emily that Kee creates is a woman of quiet determination. She manipulates through emotional blackmail and tries to control much of what goes on around her, but her character is neither loud nor showy. Visually, Emily’s sarong kebaya is the only indicator of her Peranakan heritage; she wears no jewellery and her hair is done up in a simple bun. Her clothes are in shades of red – while bright, they do not scream for attention.

We may hate Emily for the way she exploits the people around her to achieve her own ends. Yet as we witness her story unfolding and her subsequent fall from grace, we begin to truly appreciate her fortitude in making the best of her circumstances through the only means available to her. This Emily may not be the loud, over-bearing Peranakan matriarch that we have come to imagine, but she is just as powerful in an understated way.

As a monologue, Emily of Emerald Hill is perhaps easier to manage for a nomadic performance. Given that this is the first of a series of productions that Desert Wine’s Comfort Theatre aims to stage in the heartlands, it would be interesting to see if strong performances can be coaxed out of ensembles as this would add more variability to each performance.

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EMILY OF EMERALD HILL by Desert Wine Productions
20 May – 31 July 2016
Various Community Centres 


Meera Nair enjoys works that are experimental or cross-genre. She blogs on the arts and food at thatinterval.com.