Sitting in the numbered, pricey seats of the King’s Theatre on the opening night of the Edinburgh International Festival, there’s a palpable murmur of expectation for this Taiwanese version of Kafka’s oft-adapted novella. Wu Hsing-kuo’s one-man King Lear was one of the most talked-about shows of 2011’s line-up, and his auteur-driven spin on Metamorphosis felt poised to replicate that success. Wu’s latest adaptation of a Western classic into the style and techniques of traditional Peking Opera credits him as sole actor and director, promising a unique physical performance and accomplished singing with a libretto composed by Chang Ta-chuen.
After a promising start, however, this surreal rendering of Kafka’s short story in which a man awakes to find he’s transformed into a cockroach descends into an inscrutable, mercilessly long ordeal that has audiences shuffling, laughing and eventually leaving. When Wu returns for a curtain-call seemingly as interminable and indulgent as the show itself, muttering of a different sort fills the emptying stalls as someone whispers ‘I think he’s going to start up again’.
So, where does it all go wrong? The production’s considerable length (it overruns by 45 minutes, bringing the total time to over two hours) seems symptomatic of the director/ performer’s belief in the genius of his own creativity, as well as the lack of anyone to keep his ambitions in check. For the first fifteen minutes, maybe even half hour, it’s genuinely a visually stunning and aurally fascinating experience: Ethan Chang’s visuals, projected onto the starkly minimal set, are an associative dream-sequence of melting images and vivid chiaroscuro. When Gregor wakes, and Wu enters the stage for the first time as ‘the vermin’, his costume does not disappoint: bulbous and obscene with green LED eyes, it’s a suitably hideous transformation that totally contrasts with the elegance of the overall aesthetic.
Wu’s movement and singing are, I’m sure, technically faultless. The Peking operatic style is riveting, with a rich cacophony of sounds and an occasional kind of atonality that’s rarely heard in European classical music. Wu’s vocals are accompanied by a large orchestra of traditional Chinese instruments, including the ubiquitous bangu, a pair of wood clappers and drums that co-ordinate his swift movements onstage. His body has a versatility that evocatively conjures man, woman and insect at different points, responding to the sounds and sights around him in a cohesive, all-encompassing way.
The issue, however, is the bloated and pace-less structure that makes all of these aspects, initially so appealing, grating and unbearable. Wu divides Metamorphosis into six chapters, one of which is a bizarre drag sequence into which he appears to compress the entire narrative. Once this is done, he allows himself the freedom to invent characters and extend the story into increasingly incomprehensible territory.
In the scene in question, Gregor’s sister (played, of course, by Wu) carries out her beauty regime in front of a handheld mirror and sings the praises of her own looks. It’s excessive and strange, even without the jarringly dodgy translation of Ta-chuen’s libretto: ‘my face and neck contend in beauty with the spring’, Wu sings, going on to describe his ‘fragrant shoulders’. In later scenes, it actually begins to feel that Wu is toying with our desire to leave the theatre, slowly ascending a staircase to climactic music before turning at the top to walk down with agonising slowness, his screeching voice accompanied by a mass exhalation from the audience.
The final chapter is actually exquisite. Entitled ‘Flying,’ Wu depends solely on his physicality, beautifully evoking a bird in flight without the layers of costume that covered him before. It’s perplexing (who cares, at this point) and breathtaking for those who stayed, but just too little, too late – quarter past ten, to be exact.