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

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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.

 

 

The Open House at the Print Room Coronet review ***

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The Open House

The Print Room Coronet, 27th January 2018

Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, Sam Shepherd, Lillian Hellman. All succeeded at writing a Great American Play, or in some cases Plays, about dysfunctional families. In an entirely naturalistic way. It is the meat and drink of American drama.

I am no expert but I suspect there have also been multiple attempts to subvert this staple. That is what writer, Will Eno, is about here. Open House is another collaboration with Bath Theatre Royal’s Ustinov Studio, which has proved fruitful to date. I was reeled in by the Bath reviews, by the concept, but most of all by Greg Hicks, who is a marvellous actor IMHO. His Richard II at the Arcola was one of my favourite turns of last year. And, all things considered, I am glad I went along, though I have to confess this is a play that delights rather more in its central idea and its structure, than in its characters.

Father, (yes it is one of those trendy no-name jobs), played by the aforesaid Mr Hicks, is a cantankerous, misanthropic, sarcastic bully. Confined to a wheelchair post a stroke he pokes, probes, belittles and demeans the family that has gathered to celebrate a wedding anniversary. Long suffering wife and Mother Teresa Banham (last seen by me in the rash Dessert at the Southwark Playhouse) tries hard to blunt his barbs and smooth things over but her heart isn’t in it anymore. Son (Ralph Davies) and Daughter (Lindsey Campbell) make nervous family small talk but are constantly shot down by their irascible Dad. Finally Uncle (Crispin Letts) seems lost in his own world, still grieving from the loss of his wife. So far so miserable. It is on occasion very funny, in that cringey, lemon-sucking way, Mr Eno has an ear for the rhythms of this painful family gathering and the cast lap it up. Tom Piper’s set along with Madeleine Girling’s costumes, Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and Andrea J Cox’s sound all contrive to create an atmosphere of utter blandness. Colour is absent.

Food is needed and Daughter volunteers to head out to the deli. And one by one, for various reasons the family leaves. And one by one the family returns, but in a different guise. Daughter is now a realtor who is set to sell the house. Son is a handyman come to fix a couple of things, Uncle a prospective buyer, Wife his partner. Father is last to leave and is mystified by what is going on, (despite prompting the shift by revealing he wanted to sell up), until he returns as the buyer’s friend and lawyer. And, with all this coming and going, colour and light seep in. The conversations more from pained recrimination to upbeat geniality, focussed on the here and now and the future, not the past. In short from pessimism to optimism. It is a gratifying watch, replete with clever touches to support the inversion, but it doesn’t seem to say much beyond the central conceit and doesn’t really interrogate the characters.

Mr Eno is apparently a one for formal innovation and that is no bad thing. But he also seems to have the comic touch and in some ways the satire on family life here may ironically have been more acute if this had been structured in a more straightforward way. Still, it intrigued and made me laugh, and Michael Boyd’s direction, is, as you would expect, entirely sympathetic to the project.