The Great Wave review: Affecting and powerful ★★★★

Francis Turnly's story of a Japanese woman kidnapped by North Korea - and the family she leaves behind - is told with great insight and humanity

Francis Mayli McCann and Kirsty Rider Photo: Mark Douet

It’s one of the most bizarre, disturbing and, as far as the West is concerned, least known episodes in late 20th-century history – a succession of kidnappings of Japanese people by North Korea.

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Except that ‘kidnappings’ isn’t really the word. People were literally stolen — taken from their homeland, set down in North Korea, and forced to start new lives in the service of a regime that continues to appal and confound outsiders. 

This is the background to The Great Wave, a Tricycle Theatre production in which the playwright Francis Turnly — who has Japanese heritage — succeeds in finding the inherent drama in the fate of one young one woman and her family, and in exploring questions of control, freedom, and identity both personal and political.

Kirsty Rider Photo: Mark Douet
Kirsty Rider Photo: Mark Douet

The disappearance is that of 17-year-old Hanako (Kirsty Rider), who in the opening scene heads to the beach in the middle of a storm one evening, never to return. She leaves behind her older sister Reiko (Kae Alexander) and mother Etsuko (Rosalind Chao). 

Years pass and we witness Hanako’s subjection to North Korean reprogramming, while back home, Reiko and Natsuko never give up hope. Their suffering is conveyed with a restraint that makes it all the more real.

A “Sophie’s choice” moment emphasises the scale of Turnly’s chosen theme, and the play — which spans a period from the late 1970s to the early 2000s — grips the attention because it never puts its characters at the service of ideas, only ever the other way round.

Rosalind Chao and Kae Alexander Photo: Mark Douet
Rosalind Chao and Kae Alexander Photo: Mark Douet

All three women are terrific, as are the three leading men — Leo Wan as the sisters’ idealistic young friend Tetsuo; David Yip as the bland Jiro, supposedly there to progress inquiries on Hanako’s family’s behalf; and Kwong Loke as the nameless North Korean official whose dedication to the cause of his Dear Leader is put to the test.

Beautiful staging, some very affecting performances, and Indhu Rubasingham’s nimble direction add up to an evening that occasionally takes on the quality of drama-documentary but still lodges itself powerfully in the mind.

Kwong Loke and Kirsty Rider Photo: Mark Douet
Kwong Loke and Kirsty Rider Photo: Mark Douet

The designer is Tom Piper, who earnt acclaim in 2014 as the man who created the work of installation art that was Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, otherwise known as the field of poppies at the Tower of London and elsewhere. For The Great Wave — which occupies the Dorfman, the smallest of the National’s three auditoria — he has devised a set that’s stunning to look at and superbly effective, a revolve combining with Japanese-style screens to enable the action to move swiftly to and fro between a North Korean prison cell and a Japanese family home.

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The Great Wave is a portrait of two worlds, and it guides us through them with great insight and humanity.