The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (2012), Review

4 minutes read
26 May 2012, 5:00pm
4.0 out of 5


Missing Cogs

After a certain point I got the impression that the play was trying to say and do too much at once.

For a show whose making-of process took a whole seven years, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a testament to what can be achieved with patience and a single-mindedness of vision. Director, writer, and producer Stephen Earnhart speaks briefly in the program booklet of the notion of a "theatre of dreams", an idea that came about during his team's process of collaboration and conception, and that aptly describes this two-hour production. Others have also called his theatre "cinematic", and it is not difficult to see why – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicleeffectively challenges the view that the stage is more limited than the screen, and proves that both mediums can complement each other in highly surprising and impressive ways. 

Toru Okada's wife, Kumiko, has gone missing. And so has his cat, which he has named after his rightwing politician brother-in-law Noboru Wataya. These two disappearances may or may not be connected. Soon this rather non-descript househusband finds himself wrenched from the comforting banality of folding laundry into an unexpected adventure he is justifiably ill-prepared for. Along the way he encounters a host of colourful characters, some with seemingly compelling storylines that we never quite get to dive into, but all played wonderfully by the ensemble cast. Special mention must also be made of Bora Yoon, the exquisite feathered creature who composed and played the live music/sound, stationed just in front of the stage right, and whose set-up of water bowls could have been a whole show in and of itself.

The set is immediately striking, with multiple screens that are put to excellent use during the course of the play. Having the story told across multiple mediums (including video projections, shadow play, and puppetry) meant that we were transported into Murakami's strange world where the absurd coexists with the ordinary, and where one is hard pressed to delineate what exactly is "real". Nevertheless, the real magic lay not in the shiny, projection/holographic technology, but rather in the beautifully crafted moments of puppetry that were woven seamlessly into the piece. One particularly moving scene portrayed Toru waking up in an empty bed, alone next to the space where Kumiko should have been. Having this told to us through small, wooden mannequins made it all the more poignant, highlighting what an out-of-body experience this must be for Toru. 

The play is ambitious in intention and form, and for the most part it delivers. Incorporating a live variety show segment was a hilarious touch of genius that stayed true to and reinforced the cultural significance of the original writing, yet after a certain point I got the impression that the play was trying to say and do too much at once. Noboru Wataya (politician, not cat) speaking of "the emasculation of a nation" and exhorting his countrymen to put Japan on top of a "new global order" opens a whole political can of worms that never quite gets the chance to be more fully explored or resolved. Similarly, the late visit by Mr Honda's war veteran friend, while excellently executed, was another fascinating subplot that was ultimately left hanging. Things (and people) tend to get lost in the skilful meandering through multiple storylines, and I am left feeling like I have lost rather than gained something from the unfolding of this play. 

But perhaps that is the point of this whole Chronicle – the journey rather than the destination – and by the end it seems Toru is no closer to finding any answers than he was at the beginning. Perhaps the key discovery made here is the discovery of the extent to which he is lost - which I suppose counts for something. The amount of thought and attention to detail in this production was highly evident, and all in all this was an elegantly enthralling piece of theatre.

First Impressions

Stephen Earnhart and Greg Pierce skillfully blur the lines between theatre and cinema in this rendition of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, creating an almost seamless visual and aural spectacle that successfuly captures the epic, otherworldly aspects of Murakami's writing. Whatever theatrical and technical tools you can imagine, this production has it: multiple screens, live sound, exquisite puppetry, shadow-play, video projection, holographic effects, stage illusion - yet at no point do any of these elements feel gimmicky or tacked on. This is by no means a superficial showcase of smoke and mirrors. At the heart of it all still lies the simple intention to tell the story of Toru Okada, an everyman who finds himself embarking on a strange (and somewhat terrifying) journey in his attempt to find his missing wife, Kumiko.

Still, the main plotline, like Toru, sometimes does seem to lose itself in everything else the play is trying to say. I gather this artful meandering through subplots and whole worlds is Murakami's style, but this is probably more suited to the luxurious expanse of a novel than a two-hour stage production. At points, the play feels like it is attempting to deal with too many things at once, bringing up issues and themes bigger than the story at hand (modern-day politics, gender roles, the Sino-Japanese War) yet never quite satisfactorily exploring them.

Nevertheless this is an experience at the theatre quite unlike any other, and definitely one to remember. The ensemble cast does an excellent job portraying characters that are all at once relatable, quirky, and at times plain out of this world. By the end, we could just as well have emerged from a beautifully bizarre dream sequence, and, just like Toru Okada, are now left wondering which bits, if any, were real.

Michelle Tan, 26 May 2012 (4.0 out of 5)