The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Haruki Marukami's novel is given multimedia stage adaptation by Stephen Earnhart
This article is from 2011.
Toru Okada is 29 and shares an apartment with his wife, Kumiko and their cat. When both the wife and cat vanish and don’t come back for several days, Toru tries to work out what’s happened to them, with the help of a spiritualist who doubles as a prostitute. As Toru looks for his wife, the lines blur between his reality – newly unemployed, he passes his sleepless nights folding laundry and watching weird game shows on TV – and a dreamworld where memories and fears swirl around him.
Haruki Marukami’s original novel fused the details of Toru’s domestic life; filling up the cat’s food bowl, cooking spaghetti while listening to the radio, with surreal, imagined landscapes. The multimedia stage adaptation by Stephen Earnhart is the result of over seven years of planning, and is a fitting and impressive translation from the written word to the stage, staying true to Marukami’s otherworldly vision of a slightly melted suburbia.
Japanese bunraku puppets serenely act out some of the dream sequences, giant screens lead us down David Lynchian hotel corridors in slow motion, and a fish-tank doubles as a glowing panel for occasional subtitles. (The dialogue is delivered in a mix of American-English, or Japanese with English supertitles.) Despite the potentially very hectic plot, which flips between past and present, zigzagging between World War Two torture flashbacks, and grinning dancing girls, the pace remains steady, never losing the audience, even as Toru descends deeper into the murky underworld of his mind.
At times, the characters seem to skate over the surface of the play, rather than burrowing beneath its layers. So while Toru Okado (James Yaegashi), his brother-in-law Noburu Wataya (James Saita) and the spiritualist Creta Kano (Stacey Yen) are central characters, their presence feels fleeting, and overshadowed slightly by the powerful visual effects and stage tricks. But rather than detracting from the production's appeal, it just places the emphasis on the visualisation of a mental world, rather than a more in-depth character exploration.
Two particularly successful aspects of the stage show are firstly its ‘sensual’ quality – something Earnhart was keen to convey, to make it less of a story and more of an 'experience'. This is helped by onstage water features, and a gently sublime live soundtrack by sound artist Bora Yoon. Dressed in black bird feathers, she floats on and off stage, playing chimes, prayer bowls, glockenspiels and steel drums.
Secondly is its tender treatment of one of Harukami’s central themes in the book, the distances that can be felt between two people. ‘Is it possible,’ he asks in the second chapter, ‘for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?’ While Toru lies next to his wife, he describes the feeling of ‘standing in the entrance of something big … a world that belonged to Kumiko alone … a big, dark room, I was standing there, holding a cigarette lighter, its tiny flame showing me only the smallest part of the room.’
As his wife removes herself, both emotionally and physically from their relationship, Toru struggles as he tries to grasp something shadowy and elusive from her. Earnhart has captured that same ethereal thing from Marukami’s novel; welding together his abstract, existential thoughts with a physical landscape – in this case a pixellated, wooden jointed and feather-boa wrapped one.
King’s Theatre, 0131 473 2000, until Wed 24 Aug, 7.30pm, £10--£30.