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The Great Wave – National Theatre, London

Writer: Francis Turnly

Director: Indhu Rubasingham

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Any culture touched by war in the twentieth-century will have stories about the missing, not just those lost on battlefields or air attacks on civilian areas, but people abducted, removed or “disappeared” without a trace. For the families left behind, finding out what really happened to their loved ones dominates the rest of their lives, most will never know but some will hear the most incredible story.

In the late 1970s, Hanako Tanaka goes missing from a Japanese beach in the middle of a storm, believed washed away in a great wave. Devastated and unwilling to accept she’s dead, her sister Reiko and their mother Etsuko spend the next 25 years looking for answers, refusing to believe she’s dead. Meanwhile, Hanako wakes up in a North Korean cell where she must assume a new national identity in order to win the chance to finally go home. 

Francis Turnly’s new play, The Great Wave, receiving its international premiere at the National Theatre, is based on real events in which Japanese civilians were abducted and taken to North Korea. Using a parallel story structure, it follows the Tanaka family adjusting to the break-up of their family and finding an activist outlet for their personal grief, as well as the North Korean’s army attempts to breakdown Hanako’s personality and force her to work for them.

Throughout, this balance of domestic suffering and the consequent political maelstrom – a double meaning for titular great wave – is managed fairly smoothly, aided by Tom Piper’s rotating and manoeuvrable room design that allows the action to flow fairly quickly. While the Tanaka’s home-life is convincingly presented, and the relationships between mother, daughters and sisters are credible, Turnly’s primary focus is on relaying the complex and bizarre history of these events which does make some of the fact-heavy dialogue a little stilted, particular in the second act as entire scenes are constructed merely to relay Japans governmental position or name-check the other missing people.

The Great Wave does raise interesting questions about how individual identity can be determined by external forces, and the tragedy of hope, particularly in a very moving scene in which Hanako finally receives a video message from home. As a history lesson, it sheds light on a still cloudy era of North Korean activity, but the scenes in Hanako’s cell could feel more unpredictable, and by letting the audience know what happened quite early in the play, some of the dramatic tension leaks away.

Kirsty Rider’s Hanako is a fairly calm and accepting presence throughout, quietly giving-in to her fate first for the promise of home and later to protect her new family. But, her relative placidity and early compliance, doesn’t offer the actor much room to develop the role as the years pass, and this is a problem that affects the rest of the characters. Kae Alexander as sister Reiko is Hanako’s opposite, a convincingly outspoken campaigner who fights against the political elite, while Rosalind Chao’s grief-stricken Etsuko clings to a dream of her daughter’s return. Both deliver good performances but there’s little sense of the decades passing or the loss itself evolving.

The Korean characters have even less scope, a series of archetypes designed to relay the research, so Kwong Loke’s Official and Tuyen Do’s Jung Sun are allowed to show a human side later in the play but are largely the unexplained face of devotion to their ruler and North Korea’s bizarre sleeper agent programme.

The Great Wave is interestingly staged by director Indhu Rubasingham, utilising Luke Halls impressive video design to project water scenes or concrete blocks onto Piper’s paper walls. Turnly has drawn attention to a little-known and surprising area of Japanese-North Korean history, and while it doesn’t quite pull both its strands together is a worthy subject for a family-focused drama about the long-term effects of grief.

Runs until 14 April 2018 | Image: Contributed

Writer: Francis Turnly Director: Indhu Rubasingham Reviewer: Maryam Philpott Any culture touched by war in the twentieth-century will have stories about the missing, not just those lost on battlefields or air attacks on civilian areas, but people abducted, removed or “disappeared” without a trace. For the families left behind, finding out what really happened to their loved ones dominates the rest of their lives, most will never know but some will hear the most incredible story. In the late 1970s, Hanako Tanaka goes missing from a Japanese beach in the middle of a storm, believed washed away in a great wave. Devastated…

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