By Lavinna Kaur

It was 10 years ago when Ivan Heng brought to life Emily, the domineering and unforgettable nyonya, whom you’d love to hate. Yet, she means more to him than ever. The allure of reprising the role of Emily and the opportunity to one-up his past performance proved irresistible.

“Ten years ago, when I did Emily, I said to myself that I would do this role every 10 years. That was the plan. Only because in this play, it’s such an interesting thing; she starts at the age of 14 to 84, in that span.”


Ivan Heng’s 2001 interpretation of the protagonist in Stella Kon’s classic monologue is still much admired and deemed to be “the Emily of the new millennium”.

Eyes glistening with unshed tears, the man, who is clearly defined by his art, continues, “I mean, as an actor, I am my own instrument and I just thought that it would be a very interesting and enriching way to look at a role.”

He feels that acting empowers him to capture humanity. In a startling moment, he gazes out of the window for a long while, turns back and says, “I have four children; Richard, Charles, Edward, Doris.”

It is a line from the play, of course.

He explains how single lines said by a good actor can tell an entire story. An audience can tell which of these four children is Emily’s favourite, which is the problematic one and which she likes. Richard, her favourite son, is someone Ivan thinks today’s youth can relate to.

He adds that “his” role remains relevant despite having been previously played by seven actresses over almost three decades because it expresses universal concerns like the place of women in society.

Speaking affectionately about Emily, he says that in a span of two and a half hours, the audience would see her switch roles from naive bride to controlling mother to grandmother. He describes this experience as “seeing the many facets of a diamond”.

“We never get to see our mothers in that light. It’s only through photographs that you can guess, ‘What was my mother like when she was a young woman, what was she like when she was courting, what was she like when she was the belle of the ball?’”

Getting into the psyche of Emily is no mean feat for the thespian. Ivan admits to investing all his time in gently immersing in the character by reading, surfing the Web, eating in Peranakan restaurants, going to the museums and talking to women.

He also reveals that Emily of Emerald Hill would be set in a contemporarysetting, so the audience, he adds, canlook forward to loads of interaction andthe multimedia projections incorporatedby Brian Gothong Tan.

“We’ve re-worked the seating. We’ve taken out the first five rows of the Esplanade, so I’m in the lap of the audiences,” he whispers with a saucy wink. He likens this new production to a forum, where people from all walks of life and races and nationalities gather together onstage.

“You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you will leave rolling in the aisles and crying in the dark with Emily,” he declares.

Emily of Emerald Hill will be staged from Mar 3 to 13 at the Esplanade Theatre.
Tickets are available via Sistic.

All images are courtesy of Sirius Art Pte Ltd.