When Pearlly Chua first played Emily of Emerald Hill in 1990, she was about the age of the titular character who steps on stage and starts talking about her life. Three decades on, with Chua reprising the role for the 205th time on June 28, viewers will literally face a wizened Emily Gan and listen to tales of her chequered past.
For die-hard fans of the feisty matriarch who was orphaned at nine, a child-bride by 14, a scheming daughter-in-law in a Peranakan household, a charming socialite and, eventually, a grandmother pondering her years, Chua will portray Emily in Mandarin in July, after the English run.
In between these two versions of the 1983 winner of Singapore’s National Playwriting Competition, Alvin Looi will assume the mantle of storyteller and narrate Emily, as written by Stella Kon in 1982.
These three acts are part of Monologues, which will be produced and directed by theatre stalwart Chin San Sooi over the next three weekends. A fourth act, OYIF — from a line in the Prologue to Henry V, “On your imaginary forces work” — will see Alfred Loh bringing 17 Shakespearean characters to life at Play Haus Theatre in Kuala Lumpur.
The admission that “I love acting” does not quite explain Chua’s affection for Emily. “The world must see this play,” adds Chin, recapping his reaction when he first read the script. In 1984, he became the first person to direct Leow Puay Tin in the role, in Seremban, followed by a KL run.
Outside of Malaysia, he and Chua have taken the show to Adelaide, Sydney, Vancouver, Guangzhou and Singapore. There will be a second staging in Adelaide next year to mark the 30th anniversary of their collaboration.
Chua reckons the Mandarin version will be more physically demanding because the language uses different sets of muscles in the mouth and throat compared with English. “The organs of communication technically differ for both. You just need to get the muscles to memorise how it is done.”
As the play is set in 1950s Singapore, the Mandarin Chua speaks will pertain to that time and place. Her script, translated by Lee Jin Wen, is based on a Mandarin adaptation by Derrick Gan that was first performed by Singaporean actress-cum-director Jalyn Han in 1991.
Aged 31 when she first stepped into Emily’s skin and 63 come October, Chua says she has mellowed and that will translate physically into a deeper understanding of the character and her temperament. “We stay true to the script but the subtext may differ just a little in terms of exploring the feelings of a woman who has lived a full life and learnt to forgive but not forget, who enjoyed life and let go some but was still able to hold back, with a great sense of humour and fun.”
Chua stays true to the strong Nyonya colouring of the play, down to donning her Peranakan mother’s jewellery as she works the dialogue.
“Over the years, we’ve ripped through the script word by word, but it does not mean there is nothing left to be unearthed because we are talking about grief, rebellion, anger, jealousy, unconditional love and the celebration of life. Human emotions and values are more or less the same, so how do you interpret that true to a life, be it in 1950 or 2019?
Chin, who is equally at home with Emily, does not take anything for granted. “You still have to listen. I always tell Pearlly, ‘When you come in, try different things’.”
Emily traverses back and forth into different biological ages on stage, from a nine-year-old talking about her father to a reminiscing old woman. “It’s up to the audience to interpret her age. I don’t see [her]; I feel, because what you say without feeling, meaning or comprehension would just be sound bites.”
With seniors pushing for good health nowadays, “I don’t want to interpret her as bent and frail. She will stoop and slow down, and the pitch of her voice will be lower. But in terms of spirit, she is still very dynamic. I don’t know, I’m just exploring… I might be hard of hearing,” adds Chua, an acting, voice, speech and social etiquette coach when not pursuing drama.
For Chin, watching Chua and Looi carve the same character in two different ways is exciting. He chose a man to tell Emily’s story because “it’s universal. Alvin has to memorise the script but I allow him to interpret it. The challenge for him is to get into character but always remember that he is the storyteller, not Emily, and has to be detached [from her]. Alvin narrates her behaviour and story, and there are different kinds of markers for the audience”.
Looi made his theatre debut in The Actor’s Studio’s Adam the Musical in 2010 and has acted in Sinbad, Empress Wu and The Love Story with Dama Asia. He was in Chin’s Macbeth and Theatrethreesixty’s Bare Beckett, both in 2016 and last appeared on stage performing his own composition at Short+Sweet Malaysia (Song) last year.
When directing OYIF, Chin tells Loh: “This is your space and you are the person feeding it. How do you make the space come alive?”
The audience will be seeing key characters from Shakespeare’s tragedies, histories, comedies and romances. “I chose 17 and it’s up to the imagination of the actor and audience to make them work,” he adds.
“When Alfred does Shylock [from The Merchant of Venice], my instruction to him was basically: ‘You must feel the loss of humanity’, so that his interpretation of the lines should not be just that of a vengeful man but someone who is forced into vengeance because people made him lose his humanity.”
Loh’s stage appearances include Pulse with Manifesto Poetico for the Damansara International Arts Festival 2018, The Bee, A Language of Our Own, Antigone, and Another Country with Wild Rice Singapore, which won best group performance (theatre) at the Cameroonian Arts Awards in 2015.
In Lear, a role close to Chin’s heart, the king gains sanity amidst his madness in the storm. “Alfred has to use his voice to create the storm. Though he protests that he is more sinned against than has sinned, the angry, frustrated Lear comes to understand his own situation.”
Shakespearean heavyweights such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Malvolio (Twelfth Night) and Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet) are among the roles Loh will undertake. There are scenes in which he plays two characters at the same time: Othello and Iago (Othello) and Cassius and Brutus (Julius Caesar).
OYIF will end with Prospero’s speech in The Tempest, says Chin, who paraphrases: “Our revels now are ended … Everything you saw on stage was true to life in some ways but all a dream.”
What does he gain the most from working with plays and casts?
“It’s not [about] getting something. I look at people’s feelings and how the actors and director express them on stage. We are all working very hard to contribute something, not only to the audience but ourselves, and to be a better person because we explore the emotions. I don’t care what others say; I think I’m a very good person.”
Monologues will be held between June 28 and July 21 at Play Haus Theatre, 2nd Floor, Pearl Point Shopping Gallery, Old Klang Road, KL. RM88, RM128, RM158 and RM168. For tickets and showtime, call 011 1682 9929. Alternatively, see here.
This article first appeared on July 1, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.