As role models for budding young existentialists go, there are few more recognisable than Gregor Samsa, the down-trodden salesman who morphs into a giant bug in Franz Kafka's 1915 novella. This is something Wu Hsing-kuo, the maverick driving force behind the Taiwan-based Contemporary Legend Theatre since the company's inception in 1986, recognises in his new multi-media solo stage version which he brings to Edinburgh International Festival this month.
The production follows Mr Wu's equally singular take on Shakespeare's King Lear, which Contemporary Legend Theatre brought to Edinburgh three years ago. Then too, Mr Wu applied a sense of isolation he gained while training in Peking Opera from an early age. Similarly, as with Lear, he applies a very personal take on his portrayal of Gregor.
“I feel that my situation resembles Gregor,” says Mr Wu, “who shoulders the responsibility for his family. From the perspective of modern people, traditional Peking opera is not unlike that giant monstrous vermin, which never leaves its home but is forced to a life of solitude.
“I have always been solitary. During the eight years in opera school, from the ages of twelve to twenty, I was always assigned the roles of historical heroes. Kafka said that 'Sometimes, I doubt that I skipped childhood and went directly into adulthood.' Having been suppressed in the process of growing up myself, that resonates. I liked running in the woods. I liked singing. I liked bugs, and I never stepped on one. I would feed a bug with flower petals, and watch it secrete silk to form a cocoon, until it turned into a butterfly. Often I am very touched, and learn that the meaning of life is to stay alive. I am very moved by the simplicity and poetic quality of Kafka’s works.”
While Mr Wu applies Peking Opera techniques to his performance, the sixty year old is also keen on a constant sense of reinvention in his work, hence throwing video into the mix.
“My Shakespearean productions consist of adaptation and cultural translation. This time, I adopt metatheatre, enacting not only Metamorphosis, but also the stories of the author and the actor. Though incorporating technology, this is no less a theatre of nature. The stage is reminiscent of nature and our familiar environment, leading us to a nature of our creation or imagination, and images are employed to help the audience look into themselves. The images are not designed to create visual impact, otherwise it would be a critique of technology, and that is not my intention. Instead, I hope to present poetic beauty to the audience. Indeed, this is my most 'beautiful' creation. Beauty is my principle for the visual, music, dance, and performance. I believe Kafka would agree with me that the pursuit of beauty comprises the highest bliss in life.
“It is of utter importance and there should be no limit in border-crossing. Tradition should be cherished. It is the root, ethics, and wisdom of contemporary theatre and should be honoured as such. Mine is a performance style that is both Eastern and Western, both classical and futurist, and both distant and immediate. I call this theatre 'unlimited theatre.' Only through such revitalization can Peking opera survive and thrive in contemporary theatre.”
While remaining in charge of the production, Mr Wu worked with a stream of collaborators on his production of Metamorphosis. Numerous research materials were provided by a Kafka consultant. Mr Wu then spent six months reading and taking notes, before knitting together six scenes taken from his researches. A libretto was then rendered into classical modern verse by writer, Chang Ta-chun, while the play's music was developed over four stages before being arranged with the script. Set and costume alone took eight months to make, with the bug costume and female costume alone taking three months. As Mr Wu observes, “though this is a solo performance, it is not simple.”
Metamorphosis has previously been seen on stage in 1969 when a young Steven Berkoff played Gregor. Berkoff later directed another young firebrand, Tim Roth, in a similarly physical style. While those productions were undoubtedly physically demanding, Mr Wu's is a major feat of endurance.
“It is like being flayed,” he says. “I feel that I metamorphose as well. Each scene requires solid technique in role shifting and performance. For example, the bug wears a mask and heavy armour while manoeuvring long feathers above his head. This is very challenging. The sister’s role is also very demanding. She puts on make-up while singing Kunqu opera, and she walks on stilts. I also incorporate techniques from modern dance. The performance is a hundred minutes long without an intermission and with quick costume changes. In short, it takes enormous energy and stamina.
As for Metamorphosis' enduring appeal, Mr Wu posits a defiantly political note.
“It’s a 'blow and a shout,' he says, which, in proverbial Chinese, is a timely warning. “Those with authority disregard others’ right to live and demolish our nature. Kafka said: 'Only sons can make mistakes. Fathers never admit themselves guilty.' He also said, we were born to deep debt, and that the longer we live, the more we owe. Isn’t he right? Now, every government is in debt. Metamorphosis speaks for young people, for our dreams. Kafka’s writing wakes us up from deadly inertia, and I am truly moved. I hope to echo him with my own story, leading the audience into their labyrinthine mind so they can find freedom, hope, and rebirth. Kafka said 'There are only two choices in life. Be yourself or put up with reality.' Young people, stand up and keep your head upright!”
Metamorphosis, King's Theatre, August10th-11th, 8pm, August 12th, 3pm.
The Herald, August 9th 2013