Paul T Davies reviews Francis Turnly’s play The Great Wave which is now playing in the Dorfman Theatre at the National Theatre.
The Great Wave
The Dorfman, National Theatre.
19 March 2018
People began disappearing from Japan’s coastal towns and cities in the autumn of 1977. What few knew at the time was that the people had been abducted by an elite unit of North Korean commandos, the plan being to convince them of the regime’s ideologies and train them to spy on the state’s behalf. When that plan faltered, the abductees trained North Korean spies in Japanese language and customs so they could pass as Japanese and infiltrate South Korea and other countries. As the families spent years searching for their loved ones, the silence from the authorities hid the truth that they knew of this, but, fearing North Korea’s missile capability, attempted to cover up the scandal until rumour and then fact became overwhelming.
Francis Turnly’s beautifully structured, powerful play, is made even more poignant and horrific based on that factual history. Two sisters, Reiko and Hanako, are separated when mundane arguments lead to Hanako being on the beach when a great wave crashes onto the shore- but in that moment she is abducted. As year’s pass, she is indoctrinated in North Korea n ideology, given a husband and has a child, always in fear of the regime, always wanting to return home, but gradually appreciating the life she has. At home, her mother and sister never lose hope and fight for recognition of her disappearance. Tom Piper’s beautiful set ebbs and flows like the waves, alternating smoothly between Korea and Japan.
The cast embody the text very well. As the mother, Etsuko, Rosalind Chao is a study of alluring dignity, never giving up hope, always trying to respect authority, but a woman with a broken heart. The strength of the women and the power of love is conveyed beautifully in this production, Kirsty Rider as Hanako is excellent, charting the years and journey with utter conviction, and she is matched by Kae Alexander ‘s feisty Reiko. As friend and investigative reporter Tetsuo, Leo Wan drives the exposition well, and there is a particularly fine and moving performance from Vincent Lai as husband Kum-Choi, broken until he meets Hanako and then making the ultimate sacrifice to save his family. Tuyen Do is excellent as Korean “sister” and then terrorist, her actions exposing Hanako’s survival.
If, particularly in the first half, the production veers slightly towards melodrama in places, Indhu Rubasingham’s direction pulse’s the play perfectly, allowing it to build up the second Great Wave- that of publicity that gained power in Japan through the 1990s until now, and the emotions break beautifully at the conclusion. The play does what theatre should often do, takes a hitherto little known topic, and educates and informs its audience through characterisation and naturalism. The Dorfman has began 2018 much as it left last year- an excellent venue for new writing.
Until 14 April