The Great Wave at the National Theatre review ****


The Great Wave

National Theatre, 24th Mar 2018

Now theatre can do a lot of things. Delve deep into the psychology of characters and shed light on the human condition. Convey a passionate and heartfelt message. Put poetry into the mouths of actors. Dispense shock and awe through sound, light and material. And, of course, tell stories. And sometimes those stories are so fascinating that the rest can take a back seat. So it is with The Great Wave.

Japanese/Northern Irish playwright Francis Turnly has alighted on an absolute belter of a story to tell in his play and he doesn’t let anything get in the way of its telling. Bolshie Hanako, (a performance of great breadth from Kirsty Rider given Hanako has to hide her true feelings for much of the play and age 25 years), is winding up swotty sister Reiko, (Kae Alexander who is rapidly turning into one of my favourite young actors), and putative boyfriend Tetsuo, (Leo Wan, last seen by me in Yellow Earth’s stripped down version of Tamburlaine the Great). She flounces off in a huff to the beach near where they live on a stormy night and disappears. Mum Etsuko (Rosalind Chao), Reiko and Tetsuo won’t accept that she was swept out to sea and  won’t give up on the search for her, badgering police chief Takeshi (who initially suspects Tetsuo), and eventually government minister Jiro, (both played by David Yip,) to find the truth. It transpires that Hanako has been abducted by the North Korean regime so she can train spy Jung Sun (Tuyen Do) to pass as Japanese all under the watchful eye of an Official, (a marvellous turn by Kwong Loke). And there’s more, involving smart performances from Vincent Lai and Frances Mayli McCann.

This really happened, to a handful of Japanese citizens, as you may or not know. That would be enough maybe in itself. Where Mr Turnley is really clever is drawing out the human dramas at the centre of this thriller and, gently, pointing out the political accommodations that allowed it to persist from 1979, before finally, unravelling. in 2002. He also, again without taking a sledgehammer to proceedings, shows how the histories of Japan and Korea are intertwined and paralleled to some degree. Finally, and maybe most importantly, he asks us how identity and self is actually constructed. Why did Hanako “co-operate”? Why do Jung Sun and the Official believe in, and do, what they do? How was this allowed to happen? I won’t answer as there are a few more performances left (grab a ticket) but, rest assured, you will get wrapped up in the journey. You will also, if you are an old softie like me, actually be quite moved at points. And you will, as you should, reflect on today’s geo-politics.

Tom Piper’s set, a simple revolve with uncluttered, but still authentic, cube rooms, means the episodic structure of the play, jumping between Japan and North Korea, flows without interruption. The sound design of Alexander Caplan’s stealthily kicks in to good effect as well. There are some occasions where the economy of Mr Turnley’s prose becomes a little clunky but this can be forgiven as it gets us from A to B quickly, which frankly, with a story this good, is what you want.

With a powerful story, simply told, the last thing you need is a director over-egging the souffle, as it were. Indhu Rubasingham was never going to do that. What she does do though, so deftly you barely notice, is put the right people in the right place at the right time to highlight the emotion of the story. That takes real skill. When she gets her own theatre back, (the Tricycle), after all the investment, expect fireworks.

BD, being a Japano- and Koreano- phile, was never going to be allowed to miss this. Not quite as difficult to please as her mother when it comes to the theatre, she is still a stern critic. Didn’t move a muscle from start to finish. And I am rewarded with multiple future credits.

So a real-life thriller that, like the set it is set upon, revolves around and around until it becomes something more surprisingly profound. I suppose the fine British East Asian cast could have been afforded more lines to show off their class, and bring full complexity to their characters, but, if so, this may well have clocked in at well over 3 hours, and the suspense dissipated. Like I say, sometimes the story is so good it just needs telling.



From the House of the Dead at the Royal Opera House review ****


From the House of the Dead

Royal Opera House, 22nd March 2018

Now this is it what opera is all about. Not just some portly punters, (though a couple of the chaps here were carrying as much timber as me), parking themselves mid-stage and belting out their arias. No here we get a concept, and some, a detailed design to back it up, lashings of action and even more acting, maybe too much, and a score which fits the prose of the libretto. I see it has wound up a few die-hards who would probably be happier with some Puccini-esque love mush but this is the real deal for me.

Now Janacek famously never made his life easy when it came to picking the subject matter for his operas. Infanticide, forest animals, adultery and suicide, the delusion of eternal life, a warrior matriarchy, a meta tragic opera. What a bout a feel-good rom-com eh Leos? Anyway From the House of the Dead is drawn from Dostoevsky’s eponymous novel which Janacek translated and adapted in his own libretto and is set in a Siberian labour camp. It has only one assigned female character, a prostitute, though one of the prisoners is normally a soprano, though not here. There is no narrative arc. It is largely episodic and expositional with the main characters steeping out of the ensemble to describe the crimes that led to their incarceration. There is a play within a play which takes up most of the second act. The music is pretty intense, lots of that special Janacek ostinato rhythm, with not much in the way of quiet reflection. There is no ending or resolution to speak of.

It was Janacek’s last opera and was pretty much complete on his death. But a couple of his students decided it wasn’t and that he can’t possibly have meant what he had left on the page or that an unresolved ending was appropriate so they “enhanced” the score significantly and changed the ending. Sounds like Hollywood today. Anyway all this gloss has been cleared out to produce a score much closer to Janacek’s original intentions., here further refined by John Tyrell’s critical edition. Intentions that require a vast orchestra, here spilling out into the side of the stalls. Chains anyone? The Orchestra of the ROH under the baton of Mark Wigglesworth sounded fantastic. I can’t imagine a better conductor of Janacek’s operas.

This though was all about the director though. Krzysztof Warlikowski doesn’t hold back. The overture, which lays out Janacek’s main ideas, which are subject to subtle variations throughout the three acts, is accompanied by a video projection of French philosopher, and winder-up-in chief -of-reactionary-conservatives, Michel Foucault, theorising on the nature of power, punishment and control in the modern prison system. The curtain rises to a solitary basketball player and a brutal modern prison yard. The athlete turns out to be “Eagle” standing in for the bird that represents freedom in a classic staging. Novel huh? A glass box acts as the governor’s office and, later, as the stage for the play within a play. Throughout the whole ensemble is in movement, offering multiple perspectives on the stories. From my perch in the back of the gods it wasn’t always easy to know who was singing but no matter. I’ll gladly swap a bit of narrative confusion for all this visual content. All thanks to designer Malgorzata Szczesniak.

And it isn’t that tricky to work out what’s going on. Gorjancikov, (I’ll refrain from full names or we’ll be here all day), played by the extraordinary Willard White, now in his 70s, pitches up. He’s a political prisoner and toff so the governor (Alexander Vassiliev), as you do, has him beaten up. Skuratov (Ladislav Elgr) talks about his life in Moscow. Luka (Stefan Margita, who was very impressive) tells how he and a crew killed a prison officer. Gorjancikov befriends young Aljeja (Pascal Charbonneau) and teaches him to read and write. Skuratov prefaces the play within a play by telling how he killed the bloke his girlfriend was forced to marry. The two plays are performed in bawdy fashion. The Prostitute (Allison Cook) gets involved. There is a bit of a dust up. Sapkin (Peter Hoare) describes his interrogation, Siskov (Johan Reuter, another excellent performance, though the tattoos help convince) tells of how he killed his wife because she was still in love with the village w*anker Filka, who, sharp intake, turns out to be Luka, who has, second sharp intake, just dropped dead. Antonic (Graham Clark) says he should still be forgiven, the moral of Janacek’s tale. Everyone, however “evil” can be forgiven, we all have the “spark of God” apparently. Gorjancikov is released. The end.

So, as you can see, not much in the way of plot. Yet the stories, which are elaborated through the play within a play structure, are compelling and the atmosphere of tension, claustrophobia, frustration and violence, and yes a bit of confusion, travelled right up to the back of the amphitheatre. The performances of the cast, inside all this action, are powerful enough to bring life to the characters; best of the bunch is Nicky Spence as Nikita who really can act and sing simultaneously. These are men who have done wrong, really wrong, but Mr Warlikowksi, in his dramatic staging, tellingly makes the point that they are victims, of their own warped masculinity if nothing else, as well, who need help not punishment to the point of death. And he does this by sidestepping the religiosity of the source material.

Loved it. More of Mr Warlikowski and Ms Szczesniak artistic partnership please.