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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - Putting Haruki Murakami Onstage

When American film and theatre director Stephen Earnhart met Japanese
novelist Haruki Murakami with a view to adapting Murakami's 1995 novel,
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for a multi-media stage production, the
deal was sealed over a mutual love of David Lynch. Six years later, and
Lynch's influence on the world premiere of Earnhart's interpretation of
Murakami's six hundred page epic that opens at the Edinburgh
International Festival this weekend may not be obvious, but it remains
telling that the artist that bonded the two men is an American. Because
the book's spare, understated prose is more akin to something by
Raymond Chandler or Raymond Carver, both in the way Chandler made great
literature out of genre fiction, and in the way Carver took the meat
and two veg of everyday mundanity and imbued them with an ambiguous
significance.

Telling the increasingly fantastical story of one Toru Okada, whose
loss of his cat initiates a series of encounters with strangers that
lead him to slowly confront some very painful truths, The Wind-Up Bird
Chronicle is as far away from western notions of Japanese literature as
one can get. Hip, urban and contemporary, it is also fused with a woozy
strangeness that offsets the story's initial realism. It was this very
singular sensibility that first attracted Earnhart to what has become a
very personal quest of his own.

“What attracted me to the story,” Earnhart says, “was an opportunity to
be able to bring everything I love about cinema and everything I loved
as an actor about live performance under the one umbrella, and to be
able to take the audience on a journey to these worlds that Murakami
has so beautifully given us already. So it's a collision between a
deceivingly mundane realism and something that's incredibly surreal and
captivating, and which to me felt much more like memory and the
sub-conscious in a world where anything can happen.

“That sort of collision is something I've been interested in with my
film work, so here was a place to do that. People kept giving me these
books by Murakami, who was an author I wasn't familiar with when I took
my first ever trip to South-East Asia. So I read eight of these stories
back to back while I was travelling, and I was tired and half-asleep
sometimes when I was reading these books. Going on that journey in an
alien culture, I already felt like I was in another world, so reading
these books and dreaming about these characters affected me on a
sub-conscious level.

“I'd taken this trip to try and remember what it was I was even living
for in my creative life. I was really burnt out, and I hadn't gone to
try and accomplish anything, but this journey that was supposed to be
for two months in 2003 suddenly turned into this ten month walkabout.
That completely intertwined with reading these book, so somehow it felt
like something was pulling me towards this material, and I just got
really excited about creating something again when I was really burnt
out.”

That was when Earnhart made the initial approach to Murakami, who, once
he'd given the green light, preferred to stay in the background. For
Earnhart, whose internship at Harvey Weinstein's Miramax production
company after film school led to him becoming director of productions,
such a free rein was a blessing. Earnhart had previously worked on TV
comedy show Saturday Night Live, and went on to produce films including
Madonna: Truth or Dare and A Rage in Harlem. Earnhart later worked as
an actor as well as a sound designer, and directed the documentary
film, Mule Skinner Blues.

Such a background begs the question of why Earnhart simply didn't opt
to make a full-blown movie instead of a stage show. Especially in light
of the recent big-screen adaptation of another Murakami novel,
Norwegian Wood.

“I wanted a challenge,” Earnhart says, “and wanted to do something that
wasn't just on a flat screen.
Halfway through the process I went to Murakami and suggested we make it
as a film, and he nixed it, so that closed that door in a good way. But
it was important that the project was rooted in narrative and not be
too experimental. I see a lot of multi-media things in New York, and I
don't even know what they mean, but they're beautiful sometimes. It's
on a par with going to a modern art museum and looking at squiggly
lines. I wanted to make something that, even if you took all these
things away, you still have a great story. We live our lives telling
each other stories, and the book feels so simple. Murakami doesn't
write for the literary elite. He writes for the guy on the subway.
That's the kind of aesthetic I want to bring onto the stage.

“There's a very human story there, and I could relate to this character
in the way that I lived next door to a woman for six years before I
realised I didn't know her at all. We're just scratching the surface of
each other. I can never jump into your mind and know what you're
thinking, so that question of how well we know each other, I think
about a lot. The content was very personal for me, yet from a
professional point of view it just reawakened some desire that I had
when I first left film school to make a cinematic form of theatre.”

Given what has clearly become a labour of love for Earnhart, then, what
is it exactly that lies at the heart of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle?

“To me I think it's about loss,” Earnhart says. “This project has meant
different things to me at different stages, and I'm not the same person
I was six years ago. But having recently lost my mother, that element
of loss and the range of emotions you go through when you lose somebody
really important, whether it's a break-up or an actual death, to me is
really important. When the foundation of your world crumbles when you
lose a parent or a wife or whatever, for me that journey is really
relevant and really accessible to people. The catharsis of that journey
for me is what does it take, what does this man have to learn and what
does he have to go through in order to be able to move on.

I think he's clinging to the past, and he doesn't want to look at all
these terrible things that he's been avoiding for years. We all have a
capacity for violence, and we all have a capacity to go to the dark
side and go off the deep end just as Toru Okada does in the story. We
all have those sides of ourselves, so to acknowledge them rather than
hide from them is the only way we can move on, acknowledge who we are
and be fully formed people. So to watch him struggle with that like we
all struggle, and be able to confront those parts of ourselves, to
confront what it's like to lose somebody and to be okay with that, and
to be okay with another person in another relationship, all those
things are possible. Yes, people might leave me or have the capacity to
have affairs, but to be able to rise above that and still have the
courage to be in a relationship and still love somebody, that's what I
think this story is about. To have the courage to still try.”

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, August 20-24, 7.30pm, Sunday August 21,
2.30pm
www.eif.co.uk/wubc

The Herald, August 16th 2011

ends

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