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.