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The Great Wave review at National Theatre, London – ‘fascinating, but flawed’

Francis Mayli McCann and Kirsty Rider in The Great Wave at the National Theatre, London. Photo: Mark Douet Francis Mayli McCann and Kirsty Rider in The Great Wave at the National Theatre, London. Photo: Mark Douet
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Sometimes the story transcends its telling. And so it proves in The great Wave, a new play by the Japanese-Northern Irish writer Francis Turnly, a Tricycle and National Theatre co-production, which draws on events so bizarre and disturbing that it’s almost difficult to believe they actually happened.

A dark thriller, it’s inspired by a real series of abductions by North Korea, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, of ordinary Japanese citizens – incidents that for years both regimes refused to acknowledge or investigate. The “hermit kingdom” – a state in which charade, display and doublethink are a matter of life and death – richly lends itself to dramatisation.

Turnly’s piece, neatly directed by Indhu Rubasingham, examines the brutal impact of power politics on the psyche of a nation and the lives of individuals. It’s sometimes over-deliberate and schematic, the characterisation and dialogue workmanlike and lacking in texture. But as it unfolds, probing a traumatic history that is still obscured by secrecy, it exerts both a creeping horror and an intense fascination.

Tom Piper’s revolving design of paper screens has a fragility, yet also represents the impenetrable walls that divide two neighbouring countries, and that agonisingly split a family apart.

It’s 1979, and sisters Hanako (Kirsty Rider) and Reiko (Kae Alexander) live in a Japanese coastal town with their hardworking, widowed mother Etsuko (Rosalind Chao). Reiko, a year older, is studious, serious; Hanako is more rebellious.

After a sibling squabble, Hanako rages out one night during a storm to meet a boy on the beach – Tetsuo (Leo Wan), whom she knows Reiko has a crush on. It’s a petty act of vengeance with a terrible price: she’s snatched by North Korean agents and taken to a cell outside Pyongyang, where she is forced to train a young operative – a girl, beneath her dogma and uniform not unlike herself – for spying missions back in Japan.


Turnly’s plotting is like a grotesquely distorting funhouse mirror, with multiple thematic doublings reflecting personal and national guilt and suffering. North Korea’s terrible systemic abuse and repression of its own people finds a ghastly, wonky symmetry in Japanese imperialism and Second World War atrocities. And over years of confinement, Hanako’s pupil becomes almost a sister to her, until her captors equip her with a new Korean identity and release her to make a new, counterfeit life in the place she must now call home.

Some of the acting in Rubasingham’s staging is a little stiff, but the anguish of Hanako’s mother and sister, and the terrible choices and sacrifices she herself must make, have an emotional tsunami force. And if this is in imperfect play, it’s one that fiercely demands, and deserves, our attention to its exploration of shocking and shameful truths.

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An extraordinary political story sweeps away dramatic deficiencies in this flawed but fascinating new play