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Emily of Emerald Hill

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Opening night always has a special feel to it for any production, but the first presentation of Emily of Emerald Hill at Wollongong's independent Phoenix Theatre at Coniston on February 1st, added a sumptuous one-off extra - a traditional Baba Nonya meal prepared and served by respected chef and Nonya food expert, Carol Selva Rajah

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In a unique demonstration of taste helping sense (a sort of gustatory onamatopoaeia, if you like) we dined on one side of the building on a menu which included pasir panjang crab rolls, baba beef curry puffs, richly redolent beef rendang, aromatic sticky pork, fish, chicken, sticky rice and much more, before passing through a corridor to the other side for the performance in the theatre.

It was the ideal pre-performance aperitif, the audience already primed, in Nonya-mood even before Emily appeared.

Emily, in all her ages and phases is played by gifted actress Pearlly Chua. No stranger to the role, she has performed it well over 100 times since she began with it in Singapore in 1990.

Emerald Hill is a wealthy Nonya enclave located behind Orchard Road in Singapore, and it was to a villa there that young Emily came as an orphaned fourteen-year-old bride in the 1920s.

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As the only actor, Chua must deliver her monologue in a number of personas: all of them Emily's. Her props are minimal - a light gown, a fur stole, slippers - and yet by the matchless control of her expression, voice, tone and mannerisms she transforms herself, artfully conveying the story which weaves back and forth throughout her (ultimately) long and sometimes painful life.

The incredible feat sees her morphing endlessly between eras. At one point she becomes the child, abandoned by her mother, then later the manipulated pretty new bride of the family's eldest son. One moment she's the imperious overbearing matriarch, then next commanding servants, and in seconds boastful and laughing skittishly on the phone. 

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As she sits reminiscing while stitching patchwork she says: "I've made quilts for the rest of the family. Each of them sleeps all wrapped up in my patchwork quilt." This simple statement says much. It conveys her dedication to those she loves, but also her need to control - a thread that ultimately stitches the story together.

For anyone who has visited Malaysia and Singapore, or lived in Nonya cultures, the voices resonate richly, bringing back the issues of class and power, played out in every direction. Emily's voice and gestures become wheedling and obsequious when cajoling a wealthy European person on the phone then, as soon as she hangs up, she immediately switches to strident peremptory commands to her kebun the patient gardener-factotum.

To her contemporaries, it's this-la and that-la, echoing the talk of daily Nonya life. It is a faithful recording of language, life, and also the times of 20th-century Singapore.

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Just like those quilts, Chua's performances worldwide, and often in parts of Malaysia and Singapore, have gathered audiences to her, making this a story that embodies and celebrates the nostalgia of Peranakan (Nonya) heritage. Every bit as much a slice of a racial and social history as it is a hugely entertaining and thought-provoking evening at the theatre, it is a must to see.

Even for those who have no concept of Nonya life or language will still be thrilled by the enormity of the task undertaken by Chua in delivering this role, and the cleverly woven character development played out in such a deceptively simple way.

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Written by Stella Kon and directed by Chin San Sooi, Emily of Emerald Hill will play at Phoenix Theatre at 8pm every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evening (as well as a Saturday matinee at 3pm) until February 25th, 2012. Tickets $30, concession $25. Bookings Phoenix Theatre.

Please note the Sydney date and venue has changed: There will be only one Sydney performance, sponsored by Simon Goh and Carol Selva Rajah, NOW at the Zenith Theatre, Corner McIntosh St & Railway Street, Chatswood, at 8pm on Thursday March 1st. Tickets $40 for Peranakan Association members and $45 for others. Bookings by email or call 02 9777 7555

Space is limited at each venue, so please book early.

The short trailer below introduces the remarkable acting gift of Pearlly Chua

 

 - by Sally Hammond

 

 

Comments  

 
0 #1 ReviewGen 2012-02-19 22:36
We saw the performance at the Phoenix Theatre on the 18th of February and recommend this play. It's a top class performance, a most engaging actress and a play with depth.

Highly recommended.
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