Review: The Great Wave, National Theatre

Fascinating but shocking history, and beautiful theatre. Don’t miss The Great Wave at the National Theatre

“It doesn’t mean…It doesn’t mean, that”

Francis Turnly’s new play The Great Wave explores a fascinating but shocking slice of history, severely underexplored in this country. And Indhu Rubasingham’s production thereof is one which puts East Asian experience, and actors, front and centre, a pleasing but too-rare sight to see in any of our theatres, never mind the National.

Its history covers the tense relationship between North Korea and Japan, notably in the late twentieth century when the former carried out a series of abductions of citizens of the latter, but all concerned hushed up the story. Turnly focuses down to the micro through the experience of one family but also amps up the macro, as past Japanese imperialism and the grotesqueries of the North Korean regime are also placed under the microscope.

So as we follow the trauma that ensues after 17 year old Hanako goes missing from the Japanese coastal town where she lives, we witness the impact on her family left behind, unwilling to believe she is dead. And we also see the scarcely believable fate that has befallen Hanako who we discover is being held outside Pyongyang, being indoctrinated into training double agents to send back to Japan.

Rubasingham’s direction is all pared-back simplicity, beautifully realised in the spareness of Tom Piper’s revolving cube of a set, and powerfully affecting as even its paper walls prove so definitive a barrier between people, and peoples. Kirsty Rider is sensational as Hanako, so much being expressed beneath an impassive surface. And Rosalind Chao and Kae Alexander also deliver hugely moving performances as her mother and sister, determined to hold onto a thread of hope that we’d all do well to stop from dwindling.  

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Marc Douet
The Great Wave is booking at the National Theatre until 14th April

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