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FringeReview UK 2018

The Great Wave

National Theatre, London in Association with Tricycle Theatre

Genre: Drama, International, New Writing, Political, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Dorfman


Low Down

Indhu Rubasingham directs this Tricycle/National co-production at the Dorfman. Luke Halls’ stark Hokusai-coloured visuals of engulfment play over Tom Piper’s rice-paper revolve cubes. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting enjoys starkly-lit contrasts and unwonted brightness outdoors. David Shrubsole’s music is attractively restrained, where Alexander Caplen allows natural effects and a ghetto-blast of sound to crash like another surf.


Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave might be punning on Hokusai’s painting; it isn’t. Though there is a sense of farewells and drowning. It’s the opening assault on one young Japanese woman, still a girl of seventeen in November 1979 when the wave carries her off in Luke Halls’ stark Hokusai-coloured visuals of engulfment over Tom Piper’s rice-paper revolve cubes, a fragility of living where two nations seem whisperingly close. The Great Wave isn’t a signal from one to the other though, more a hoped-for invasion of ‘sleepers’. Much of this really happened. Indhu Rubasingham directs this Tricycle/ National co-production at the Dorfman, with a thriller pace Turnly’s straightforward telling demands. Here nothing intrudes on the compelling need to tell it.


What’s behind that gulf of water is three men from North Korea. They’ve come to kidnap Japanese citizens to learn Korean then teach saboteurs how to infiltrate Japan and disrupt, even destroy. A South Korean airliner was blown up with 115 on board, and that atrocity’s referenced here. Turnly’s narrative spans 1979-2003, and mainly the home of Etusuko, played by Rosalind Chao, a widow of thirty-seven and her daughters, studious eighteen-year-old Reiko (Kae Alexander) and rebellious younger Hanako, Kirsty Rider’s keen portrayal of a sexually rebellious, turbulent girl too lazy to learn. Her transformation into a studious gifted teacher of languages is the more harrowing since she loses nearly everything else. As paradoxically, do her sister and mother.


When Leo Wan’s schoolfriend Tetsuo – attracted to Reiko – challenges them to accompany him to the beach, only Hanako, to spite her sister, assents. But even Tetsuo never makes it, and stung by Reiko’s scorn Hanako vanishes into the storm. Both Reiko and Tetsuo travel a road of mutual guilt, as does Etsuko. Alexander hunches into a carapace of herself, whilst Chao turns lean, taut and unforgiving.


There’s lasting refusals to forgive themselves, too, human consequences shadowing the next quarter-century with palpable sadness, hopeless waiting of several kinds.


With David Yip’s police officer accusing Tetsuo of murder – thus causing his family’ business to collapse – the harrowing of family and friends begin as they seek to find out the truth. It takes six years before the transformed Tetsuo, now an investigative journalist with a single obsession turns up the string of thirteen abductions, two of couples.


Japanese nervousness about angering North Korea – they had only a basic ‘understanding’ from as late as 1965 – means its government simply denies all evidence. Only North Korean famine allows a belated leverage. David Yip’s also the government official Jiro obstructing then aiding Hanaka’s family and Tetsuo.


Wan’s early puppyishness is transformed by his family’s shaming and an eventual re-emergence. He still holds a candle for Reiko. It’s all registered by Wan as a laser focus of his previous bright light.


Turnly necessarily compresses the detective work of several through one character – who anyway doesn’t take all credit. So it’s hardly surprising this story, once broken, absorbed Japan for years; more than North Korea’s nuclear capability. But Japan still refuses to recognize how it did far worse to Korean women, forcing them into sex slavery as ‘comfort women’. It’s a point tellingly if briefly brought out by Turnly’s North Korean characters.


Once in North Korea, Rider’s Hanako quickly feigns unflinching loyalty to Kim-il-Sung, whose portrait balefully glares down on her. Kwong Loke’s Official and protégé Jung Sun (Tuyen Do) initially promise a return for services rendered. However as Hanako teaches Jung Sun perfect Japanese and takes charge, it’s clear she’s there for the long haul.


What could have been a couple of rigid cardboard cut-outs are humanised by Turnly and the actors, as we learn more about both these North Koreans and ultimately their relationship. Hanako has an intimation of why Jung Sun’s headed for Japan, but no real clue.


There’s more. As the programme winds down, Hanako’s to be married off to Kum-Chol, Vincent Lai’s unsuspecting survivor of a family he inadvertently betrayed. Lai brings out warmth behind wariness, and ultimately nobility. Despite his loyalty, he’s ‘tainted’ by familial association. And Hanako knows too much. She must pretend to be another tainted North Korean, and they have a daughter: the spirited Frances Mayli McCann’s Hana, a literal diminutive of Hanako, and as prone to trouble.


A remarkable number of these narratives cross over and if one can guess part of the ending, the very real documentary roll-call of names Tetsuo reels off witnesses a harrowing truth.


Two motifs repeated just once each mark Turnly as an exquisite rather than merely efficient dramatist. The recurrence of an origami rabbit with long ears, and a battered old shop sign. In addition, a red paper lantern at the end imparts its own uplift.


Nothing distracts as Piper’s set allows everything to revolve, including the sound. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting enjoys starkly-lit contrasts and unwonted brightness outdoors. David Shrubsole’s music is attractively restrained, where Alexander Caplen allows natural effects and a ghetto-blast of sound to crash like another surf. We’re not pulverised in the wrong places, as can happen particularly in thrillers and conventionally-threaded narratives like these.


In 2017 there was another winter storm at the staging of Howard Barker’s In the Depths of Dead Love with an all-white cast at The Print Room playing Asian characters. Barker’s China was a kind of conceptual Ruritania and despite his European credentials it’s fair to say such casting and casualness aren’t acceptable now. Only a year before the Arcola had staged Barker’s ‘Japanese’ The Twelfth Battle as part of a double bill, in darkness admittedly, but with two Europeans. Nevertheless even with the flourishing of Yellow Earth (with a vigorous Tamburlaine at the Arcola last year) it’s still rare to see an entire Asian cast, and it’s particularly welcome. We need more of this. Much more.


If Turnly’s relatively conventional techniques make this more a visual than dramaturgical spectacle – and Piper’s set is stunning – it’s perhaps because it’s a history we’re unfamiliar with, and we need it straight. That’s more than enough to make it thoroughly absorbing, with far more questions than when we entered the space. Do see it.