The Great Wave
National Theatre and Tricycle Theatre
Dorfman Theatre (National Theatre)
If The Great Wave is not the best play of 2018, then Londoners can look forward to enjoying some real treats over the coming nine months.
The combined forces of playwright Francis Turnly and director Indhu Rubasingham have engendered a co-production between the National and the Tricycle that is a deeply moving and thought-provoking family drama which widens out to embrace a dual political dimension and grips from start to tear-jerking finish.
What apparently begins as a routine Japanese police procedural following the unexplained disappearance of Kirsty Rider’s Hanako a wilful 17-year-old schoolgirl on the night of a terrifying storm soon moves into very different territory.
Tom Piper’s clever design built around a revolve with moving screens that receive often amazing computer-generated projections courtesy of Luke Halls, most notably in that storm scene, allows action to take place alternately and almost simultaneously in two locations as distant in mileage as they are in culture.
In a Japanese coastal town, the lost girl's mother and sister try to out-guilt each other about their loved ones lost, additionally throwing blame on a boy, who inadvertently ignited a story that would cause personal anguish but also political chaos for the next 23 years.
For the first few years, as no news emerges about the disappearance, Kae Alexander (fresh from Sir David Hare’s BBC drama Collateral) in the role of Reiko tortures herself, sacrificing her bright future in unavailing attempts to find her sister.
At the same time, we watch the missing girl being brainwashed in a North Korean prison cell and then finding herself obliged to become a teacher educating spies in the language and ways of her homeland.
While life in Japan will seem mildly exotic but relatively familiar to Western eyes, those in North Korea resemble nothing so much as scenes drawn directly from a brutalist adaptation of 1984. This opportunity to view a wholly convincing depiction of a culture that few of us living in Britain could ever imagine is a great part of the evening’s attraction.
After half a dozen years, the blamed boy Tetsuo played by Leo Wan, whose family are ostracised, returns with a relatively plausible theory in which he proposes that Hanako was kidnapped by North Korea.
At first, this seems as mad as the hundreds of messages in bottles that Mother, Rosalind Chao’s Etsuko starts to send in her desperation to make contact. However, once Tetsuo delves deeper and Reiko moves into overdrive forming an association with other families whose family members have also gone missing the nature of evening changes.
Tetsuo becomes a journalist devoting his life to finding information about the case, and the angry family become a collective thorn in the side of David Yip playing Japan's Foreign Minister, threatening not only his patience but also delicate diplomacy between Japan and the increasingly unpredictable Kim Il Jung's cohorts. At the same time, Hanako builds a new life and family in her adopted homeland.
In addition to shedding light on the mysteries of life in Japan and more significantly North Korea, The Great Wave is also an object lesson in the political art of saving face, which was always popular with communist and other dictators but now also seems to be the guiding force behind the actions of so many of the world’s highest profile politicians.
Remarkably, political pressure, combined with personal industry and passion, begins to have an impact, leading to satisfying but far from sentimental closure at the end of 2½ mesmerising hours that must surely be transferred either to a West End theatre or possibly one of the larger auditoria at the National.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher