Haruki Murakami is the latest in a series of novelists to see their work make the leap from the page to the London stage. Sputnik Sweetheart, adapted by Bryony Lavery and directed by Melly Still, delves into disconnection and unrequited love.
Sumire (Millicent Wong), is an aspiring young writer drifting through life, reading, smoking and drinking coffee before sitting down to write. The great novel, sure to come… never comes. From a nearby phone box, she regularly calls, and wakes, her friend K (Naruto Komatsu) in the early hours of the morning. K has been unrequitedly in love with her for years. At a wedding, Sumire meets the much older Miu (Natsumi Kuroda) who inexplicably offers her a job, and Sumire soon falls into a similar unrequited love for Miu.
The original novel feels shortchanged in a number of ways. The meeting between Sumire and Miu is, unfortunately, not convincing, the connections in the novel coming off only as lines being recited from a script, lacking in chemistry and connection. Miu’s aloofness is overly emphasised. The transformation in Sumire’s character brought about by the new job and her time with Miu is too superficial, with a mere change of clothes and a passing mention of language lessons not enough to capture the more profound shifts the story relies on.
As Sumire and Miu take a trip to Italy and Greece, Sumire unsuccessfully attempts to initiate a sexual relationship with Miu. In response, Miu opens up about a haunting trauma from her past that has left her devoid of any sexual desire and with hair as white as snow. Kuroda shines here as she recounts the night that Miu found herself trapped on a ferris wheel, yet also watching herself from a distance as she engaged in a peculiar sexual encounter in her far away apartment. The next morning, Sumire is gone, vanished without a trace, not to be seen again. K rushes to Greece to search for her and, becoming convinced she has left for another reality, he tries to follow her. Where the novel embraces magical realism, here the scene does not quite successfully transfer to the stage, leaving the moment just hazy and unclear.
The staging, designed by Shizuka Hariu, is a standout. The long phone cable stretches across the stage and around the characters, tangling them up in their relationships and their desires. The phonebox whirls across the stage (credit to the cast for never showing a sign of dizziness!) and later stands in for the ferris wheel. Some lovely animations by Sonoko Obuchi are projected on the walls: images of the original Sputnik, of Laika the dog and then some fine comedic visuals as K tries desperately to think of cucumbers in a fridge to avoid being turned on at an inopportune moment.
A lot of the cast’s movement is stylised, with Yuyu Rau (who later also plays K’s girlfriend Mrs Nimura) gracefully moving around the stage throughout. The almost ethereal movement adds an otherworldly dimension to the performance, also complementing suggestions of moving into different realities.
In a similar way to the novel, the play leaves it up to the audience to interpret events. Did Sumire break through into another dimension or reality? Has she returned and resumed her life? Was it all a dream, a fantasy by K? A final enigmatic phone call leaves the audience contemplating the nature of reality.
Overall Sputnik Sweetheart feels somewhat incomplete. While the team has made a commendable effort in capturing the book’s mood, it comes at the expense of the depth and the heart that makes Murakami’s work so beloved.
Written by Haruki Murakami
Adaptation by Bryony Lavery
Directed by Melly Still
Design by Shizuka Hariu
Video Design by Sonoko Obuchi
Produced by Arcola Theatre in partnership with the Japan Foundation
Sputnik Sweetheart plays at Arcola Theatre until 25 November. Further information and bookings can be found here.