Sputnik Sweetheart

Arcola Theatre

Haruki Murakami, master of Literature. Rambling global settings and gnawing sense of loss have cemented themselves as staples in his style, along with a lack of concise endings. Bryony Lavery’s recent adaption wrestles with a lesser-known work, Sputnik Sweetheart.

Having very little to do with space (sadly) narrator K (Naruto Komatsu) has a stunted, pining, and dependent relationship with Sumire played by Millicent Wong. They are drawn together by their love of literature, classical music, and loneliness. But Sumire does not reciprocate his longing adoration. When she meets Miu played by Natsumi Kuroda, a stylish wine importer 17 years her senior, her life changes. Thus leaving K trailing behind, updated via the phone, burning with unrequited desire.

All seems rather simple, doesn’t it? A lesbian-tinged love triangle with all the tropes of Murakami’s work. Depression, isolation, conforming to a rigid society. But hold on dear reader, all is not what it seems. On a business trip she takes with Miu in Greece, Sumire vanishes, and all hell breaks loose, both thematically and also for the play’s overall sense of continuity.

Shizuka Hariu’s set is versatile and modernist. An illuminated, partly mirrored phone box (a theme, throughout the writer’s work) glows and spins on tiny wheels. A single ladder leads to an overhanging balcony, and poles descend to chop up the space stage right. Over the top of this black-and-white world, Sonoko Obuchi’s cartoon/anime projections (also lacking colour) offer a comic layer on top of the heavy-going subject matter. Melly Still’s directing attempts to move us through Japan, Switzerland, and Greece with explosions of flapping limbs and lyrical style movement. Although an understandable choice in the limited space, it doesn’t quite work. The rapid change from serious actor to serious dancer jolts us out of the story almost every time.

Lavery also has a tough task on her hands, weaving Murakami’s dreamlike prose into a working, standing narrative, and at points she succeeds. The pre-cellphone world, conjured by the stretching cords, and lengthy static conversations of K and Sumire does give a sense of their dynamic. The placement of actors for the big-ticket scenes is advantageous and well thought out.

Yet all the blocking in the world can’t make up for an overall flat and emotionally stale feeling. Wong doesn’t quite nail our female Jack Kerouac wannabe, and her sexual confusion rings hollow. Similarly, although Komatsu gives a consistent performance as K, although he swallows a lot of the scripted humour. Kuroda as the stylish and confident, yet deeply damaged Miu tends towards melodrama, with unnatural sweeping gestures that conflict with the other two’s more paired back physicality.

The plot (no spoilers I promise) takes a sci-fi left turn in the last half an hour, and with the emotional lack of clarity this difficult pivot splutters out like a wet log on an open fire. We are lost in the hurriedly introduced multiverse, and the burdensome highbrow symbolism winds us into a tighter and tighter ball. Sputnik is mentioned as a metaphor for the drifting aimlessness of the characters, but we the audience feel more like Laika the space dog, bewildered by events unfolding around us, shot out into the unknown in a little black box, spinning and spinning and spinning.

This play is running until the 25th of November, click here for a ticket!