London Theater Review: North Korea Saga ‘The Great Wave’

This timely tale of two sisters is epic and gripping, but it's a play of two halves that tend to cancel each other out.

The Great Wave
Mark Douet

It’s nothing if not timely: Francis Turnly’s epic international mystery “The Great Wave” takes us into the soul of North Korea. A tale of two sisters – best of times, worst of times – this National Theatre production splits a family up across two very different nations to show just how much our lives are shaped by society.

In a Japanese coastal town in 1979, 17-year-old Hanako is swept out to sea. Her sister Reiko swears she saw three men on the beach and, with her mother Etsuko and her best friend Tetsuo, dedicates her life to the hope that Hanako might have survived.

She’s right – sort of. Kirsty Rider’s headstrong Hanako wakes up in a North Korean cell. Enlisted to train North Korean spies to pass for Japanese, she’s forced into a transformation of her own, both learning Korean and kowtowing daily to the Great Leader’s image. It’s an obliteration of the self, as communism dictates, but it’s never wholly clear whether Hanako’s acting out of necessity or indoctrinated for real.

Taking inspiration from the real cases of Japanese citizens abducted by Kim il-Sung’s North Korea, Turnly finds a way into a nation that sealed itself off from the rest of the world in 1953. In two sisters separated only by circumstance, he shows the extreme ideological distance between the two nations, so that as Kae Alexander’s earnest Reiko opts to search for her sister, Hanako’s life is entirely dictated to her by the regime. She’s allocated a disloyal husband, slung to the bottom of society and left to the mercy of a ravaging famine that gripped North Korea in the 1990s.

At one level, Turnly’s play offers a short explainer of North Korea and its history, though there’s very little fresh insight here. While Turnly wonders whether a government willing to cover up its citizens’ abductions is any worse than a regime that controls its population’s every move, it would help to have a sense of Japan’s history as well. This was, after all, a nation emerging from its own recession into one of the free world’s financial capitals.

It’s an epic and gripping story, swinging between the two nations over 25 years, and Indhu Rubasingham’s dynamic production gives it a cinematic sweep. Tom Piper’s revolving paper-paneled stage combine with Luke Halls’ projections to find the fluidity to handle the snapshots and jump-cuts of a script that swishes from shore to shore. Hanako’s mother (Rosalind Chao) floats bottled messages out to sea; her granddaughter scoops one up to find it sealed shut. It means the two sisters seem so close to one another, and yet so far away. For all Reiko gets closer to the truth, she’s no nearer to a solution.

If it’s a play of two halves, however, each tends to cancel the other out. While Hanako’s life lays bare the harsh realities faced by North Korean citizens, it’s couched alongside a glossy procedural drama as her family pushes for answers in Japan. Turnly clings closely to historical events – a North Korean agent did bomb a South Korean plane ahead of the Olympics in Seoul, for example – but he simplifies them to the point of superficiality. It’s never quite clear where fact and fiction meet, and if that blur’s a deliberate tactic to echo political string-pulling, his form never fully lands the thought.

Structurally, too, the stories pull against one another: one’s a mystery thriller, the other its solution. Not only does Turnly rob himself of a reveal, he leaves half his narrative stuck in the mud. For 25 years, Reiko and Etsuko can only pine for Hanako – and they do so to the exclusion of all else. Neither seems credible.

London Theater Review: North Korea Saga ‘The Great Wave’

Dorfman, National Theatre, London; 450 seats; £40 ($56) top. Opened, March 19, 2018; reviewed March 18. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

  • Production: A National Theatre production of a play in two acts by Francis Turnly.
  • Crew: Directed by Indhu Rubasingham; Design, Tom Piper; video, Luke Halls; lighting, Oliver Fenwick; music, David Shrubsole; sound, Alexander Caplen; movement, Polly Bennett; fight, Kev McCurdy.
  • Cast: Rosalind Chao, Kirsty Rider, Kae Alexander, Leo Wan, David Yip, Kwung Loke, Tuyen Do, Vincent Lai, Frances Mayli McCann, Chike Chan.
  • Music By: