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Review: Sputnik Sweetheart (Arcola Theatre)

Review by Sam Waite


When adapting a story from one medium to another, creatives must always ask themselves what the new way of telling a story brings to it, and what potential difficulties the transition could create. It's easy to see why film and television are so often adapted for the stage, moving from one visual medium to another – meanwhile, plays like Sputnik Sweetheart, Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of Murakami’s 1999 novel, take the risk of bringing something more internal and less openly visual to the stage, where what we see can be the difference between success and failure.

Following Murakami's narrative, translated for English-reading audiences in 2001, Sputnik is told largely from the perspective of K, a never-named protagonist in love with his dear friend Sumire. Sumire, at first presented as our leading lady, is a Kerouac devotee and would-be writer who has no clue what to write about, who falls madly in love with Miu, an older, more put-together woman she meets at a wedding. At first increasingly jealous, K later receives a call from Miu that leaves him fearing for Sumire’s safety, and revelations about both women come to light.

Experimental in structure and presentation, Sputnik Sweetheart has strong elements that work well on the stage, but also components of both plot and approach to the material that leave more questions than answers. I found it difficult to relate to K’s struggle with his unrequited feelings for Sumire, mostly because I didn't feel that she as a person was clearly drawn, leaving his affection more a concept than a genuine result of a fully realised dynamic. Melly Stills, director for the production, uses her actors and sparse staging to create some truly stunning tableaus, but these moments of movement and visual storytelling are sometimes left to do the heavy lifting the narrative struggles to do alone.

Admittedly, fault cannot be fully placed on Lavery for her retelling of Murakami’s narrative – I couldn’t help but wonder if having had time to read the book beforehand might have helped me to follow the emotional journey, but the other half of that argument is that someone shouldn't have to consume media in one form to appreciate another. The script is well-paced and the dialogue, when given the chance to settle in and really be utilised, is consistently solid and occasionally heart-wrenching in its poetic flow, and Still’s use of the ever-presented phone box and telephone wire to strike the aforementioned tableaus is often breathtaking.

Curiously, a strength and a weakness of Sputnik Sweetheart is its exploration of perspective. While looking back at Millicent Wong’s performance as Sumire finds deliberate control and a lack of emotion that suggests K’s interpretation of her not matching up with how she really feels throughout the story, in the moment there were scenes where she came across as simply flat or disengaged. Wing is, as seen in more passionate moments, a fine actor, but Still and Lavery’s take on how people interpret one another will do her a disservice in the eyes of some audience members.

Restrained, sophisticated, and thoroughly untouched by K’s warped vision of the story, Natsumi Kuroda’s work as Miu frequently threatens to steal the show. Her ability to convey trauma and emotional peaks convincingly within the stylised nature of the production is perfectly matched with her sharp, quick-drawn wit when befriending Sumire. One could argue that K is the lead of the show, or that Sumire is, but when Kuroda is allowed to let loose it becomes ever easier to argue that Miu is the character most worthy of our attention.

Where two other actors, Yuyu Rau and Sadao Ueda, are given little to do within the story, with Ueda not even appearing until the play is almost over, Naruto Komatsu makes his professional stage debut in the tricky role of K. This is a young man who simultaneously has his life together – already a schoolteacher and doing well for himself – and can't seem to get it right – his desire for Sumire is all but announced and rejected without her even seeming to register it. Komatsu handles his part well, but it can be hard to emotionally connect with a leading man when his affections and plot beats are more metaphor than real, honest interaction.

A charming, characterful touch is the illustrated sequences shown overhead by video designer Sonoko Obuchi. These scenes allow for comedic touches, including a sometimes funny but often uncomfortable running gag about imagining cucumbers during intercourse, as well as allowing for some more troubling imagery to be presented in a less harmful, more stylised manner. An unfortunate element of this is that the phone box, ever present on stage, can get in the way of the images (particularly where subtitles are used) and the brick wall of the Arcola’ auditorium can make things hard to see properly.

Deliberately obtuse in its ending and sense of reality but sometimes too unclear in where the characters are emotionally, Sputnik Sweetheart will likely resonate with fans of the novel who want to see something they already love play out live on stage, but for those of uninitiated it isn't quite enough to have us dust off the library card. There is an abundance of obvious talent on show both in stage and off, but something seems to have been lost in translation when taking the work of such a famous and well-regarded novelist into a completely disparate medium.

Sputnik Sweetheart plays at the Arcola Theatre until November 25th

Photos by Alex Brenner



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