First published in The Times, August 26 2016
This solo piece from the writer and performer Tsai Pao-Chang packs a lot of ideas into its 50-minute running time. On one level, the show (staged as part of the fringe’s Taiwan Season) is a poignant love story, about a young man grieving for his recently deceased lover. The piece gradually expands, drawing on the myth of Orpheus in the Underworld to speculate about the implications of artificial intelligence on the way we cope with death and grief.
Even the staging is ambitious. We encounter the protagonist Ho-Nien (Tsai) inside a large, empty, transparent cube, with the supporting characters, including the lead’s personal assistant and his lover, Alain, portrayed by huge holograms beamed onto the backcloth. The visual effect is absorbing, even if the interactions between the live and filmed elements aren’t always faultless.
The plot turns on the age-old theme of second chances at love, and the opportunities offered by virtual reality. When Alain is killed in a plane crash, Ho-Nien makes a brief descent into hell, re-emerging to reconstruct his lover through an advanced form of artificial intelligence. Though he experiences a short-term relief and a feeling of grief postponed, there are consequences in the discoveries he makes about Alain’s clandestine life and activities.
Tsai’s portrayal of the despair and denial of the grieving process is frequently touching and the speculative notion of being able to resurrect or rescue a lost love is one that never loses its fascination, even if the writing is a little too earnest at times, and the pitch rather emotionally overwrought. The striking, technically challenging staging at times threatens to overwhelm what is in fact an intimate character piece, though there is something quite poignant about Ho-Nien’s physical isolation and frailty within the vast space.
While Tsai is to be commended for his original approach to classical themes, the quiet integrity of his show is weakened by its twist ending, which raises the stakes but undermines the moving human drama. The tacked-on coda is a too-facile way of resolving what is otherwise an intriguing speculative drama.