The Great Wave Review – ‘a complete clash of cultures, identities, and outlooks’

Indhu Rubasingham's revealing production about a dark part of Japanese cultural history is relevant and immensely human

Copyright: Mark Douet

With The Great Wave, the National brings to our attention the relatively unknown stories of Japan’s “missing people” – individuals who, it is believed, were abducted by North Korea, forced to give up their identities, and train up North Korean agents to pass off as true Japanese. A 2012 survey found that Japanese citizens were more concerned with the abductions than North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme.

The Great Wave is both relevant and immensely human in its approach to helping us understand the conflict between North Korea and the outside world, telling the story of the “missing people” through the prism of one family’s decades-long struggle to uncover the truth.

Kirsty Rider puts in a powerful performance as the abducted Hanako, who is taken from a beach at night and forced to learn Korean. The play follows her transformation from scared teenager to outwardly strong North Korean working mother and loyal citizen, with Vincent Lai shining as her fearful husband Kum-Chol.

The play begins with immersive sounds of waves and sea movements, setting the scene for the argument between sisters Reiko (Kae Alexander) and Hanako, which leads to Hanako running out of the flat and into the hands of the North Koreans. Tom Piper’s design reinforces the great wave theme with a towering series of white panels resembling the wave and the body of water and distance which comes to separate the two sisters.

The main set, a moving platform which becomes a North Korean holding cell, Hanako’s flat, the family home, and an airport arrivals lounge, is highly functional and extremely imaginative. Worth noting is the attention to detail and sensitivity of Piper’s design in ensuring that the National’s intimate Dorfman Theatre truly transports the audience to Far East Asia. It is impressive.

Indhu Rubasingham’s direction is assisted by the encapsulating floor projections of rain and waterfall produced by Fran Miller, along with the haunting music from David Shrubsole which accompanied the most moving scenes.

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Tuyen Do, as the North Korean agent Jung Sun, puts in an astute performance. Despite her character’s hard exterior and unfaltering loyalty to the regime, we get a hint of sensitivity from Do and she allows us to see past her character’s two-dimensional front. The confrontation between Hanako’s mother, Etsuko (Rosalind Chao), and Do’s secret agent was perhaps the best scene in the performance, giving the audience a complete clash of cultures, identities, and outlooks as Do was seen fighting for Etsuko to believe that Hanako was happy.

Rider’s performance as Hanako is practically faultless throughout, with the final moments of the play evoking a whole host of emotions as a singular lantern is launched up towards the sky and we are forced to consider the harrowing truth that her character might never return home. This production sheds light onto a hidden narrative, showing us the true possibilities of theatre to inform and to move.

The Great Wave plays at the National Theatre’s Dorfman auditorium until 14th April, with tickets from £15.