Almost uniquely in my Edinburgh International Festival experience, programme notes for Wu Hsing-Kuo’s performance have been written by Wu himself. He recounts a prediction that “the audience will be divided into those who love it and those who do not understand it”, as if only ignorance could explain a less than rapturous response. It’s the classic “emperor’s new clothes” argument.
The programme also credits Wu as “artistic director [of the Contemporary Legend Theatre company from Taiwan], script, director, actor”. In the course of the piece he portrays Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s short story of which this is nominally an adaptation, his sister, his father, an orphaned baby (from the story “Before The Law” in Kafka’s The Trial), Kafka himself and Wu himself. This is, in short, a work of staggering narcissism . . . literally staggering, as Wu uncertainly negotiates his way up and down the ice mountain of Lin Keh-hua’s set, representing “the soul’s habitat”.
The overall theme of this year’s festival is the relationship between art and technology. In this case, it manifests in the contrast between Wu’s more traditional Peking Opera-style performances and costumes and a succession of video projections by Ethan Wang, some abstract, others expressionistic, still others naturalistic as when Wu, playing himself onstage, berates Samsa (represented at this point by an empty bug costume) while egged on by a video Kafka (also Wu). This all may symbolise a general relationship between techniques which differ across the ages, or between those ages themselves, or between differing artistic impulses; but ultimately, it all boils down to the only relationship which matters to Wu: that between him and himself.
Even our admiration (for admiration, remember, is the only knowledgeable response conceivable) is ultimately the fabrication of Wu. The advertised 90 minutes of this (without interval) would have been trying enough; an actual running time of more than two hours does not represent added value, to put it mildly. Wu’s programme notes proclaim that “this production is emphatically personal”; I would agree entirely, if “emphatically” were replaced by “dully” and “personal” by “solipsistic”.