Sputnik Sweetheart at Arcola Theatre
Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most famed living writer, has an international cult following for his work infused with themes of love, loss, loneliness and the human condition.
Set in 1999, Sputnik Sweetheart conjures up the past, though the stage production could be placed in any country and period. Consisting of an entirely East Asian cast, this contributes to the authenticity of this adaptation of Murakami’s novel, while its themes remain universal. The stage set-up is minimal but engaging, with a large phone booth, and an open top floor with an accompanying ladder.
In the first few moments, protagonist K (Naruto Komatsu) performs a short monologue about the Russian satellite in Japanese with translations; the rest of the play is in English.
At its centre, Sputnik Sweetheart is a love story, with Murakami’s distinct, intriguing tropes. K’s desire for his friend Sumire (Millicent Wong) is interpreted both with tongue-in-cheek humour, thanks to the author’s metaphors and innuendoes, as well as Sonoko Obuchi’s captivating and entertaining animation. Sumire is dressed in a long overcoat, with a copy of Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveler peeking out of a pocket, mirroring the quintessential Beatnik writers she admires so much. As per the novel, Miu (Natsumi Kuroda) soon enters the scene, through which Sumire becomes enamoured. Their swift connection is plausible, one beautiful moment being when they discuss the greats over their mutual love for classical music. In between the characters’ conversations, there are alluring reprieves of short dance sequences – metaphors for the push and pull of desire. Furthermore, the use of a telephone wire, twisting and winding between them, is imaginative and memorable, symbolising a love triangle.
Like many Murakami novels, identity, loneliness and a desire for connection, are weaved between the prose, with what may seem like ordinary life suddenly being turned on its head by an alternate reality. When Miu finds herself stuck on a Ferris wheel at night, she manages to observe her bedroom with some binoculars. She sees the man who’s been following her, naked, and facing a doppelgänger version of herself – a scene equally unnerving and very gripping.
The story is told through K’s male perspective, positing the questions: whose reality is this? And where did Sumire really disappear to at the end? Murakami is a master at making the surreal feel natural, and both adaptor Bryony Levery and director Melly Still retain the curious nature of the book, as well as the universal themes of yearning and unrequited love it explores with the novelist’s wondrous dreamlike touch.
Images: Alex Brenner
Sputnik Sweetheart is at Arcola Theatre from 27th October until 25th November 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.