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The Great Wave – National Theatre co-production with the Tricycle Theatre

Chike Chan, Tuyen Do in The Great Wave by Francis Turnly, photographer Mark Douet.
Chike Chan, Tuyen Do in The Great Wave by Francis Turnly, photographer Mark Douet.

Set in both Japan and North Korea, this is a fascinating story, and one that has more than a kernel of truth to it, though the first noticeable thing in the script is a statement underneath the dramatis personae that the “names, characters and incidents” portrayed in The Great Wave are, in themselves, fictitious.

Except this isn’t universally the case: in North Korea, pictures of Kim Jong-il are added to ones of Kim Il-sung after the latter’s passing, and the play’s biggest ‘incident’ of all is, by North Korea’s own admission, if anything, true. The timespan of the play stretches from November 1979 to November 2003. Having recently seen some productions that kept jumping about between decades and generations, making the show unnecessarily complicated, seeing a play that starts at the beginning and ends at the end was most welcome.

The play relies heavily on tugging at the audience’s emotions, but gradually. Initial restraint slowly but surely turns into melodrama, and when the crying in Japan is at its highest point, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were in competition with their North Korean counterparts, who were compelled to cry after the death of their ‘Great Leader’ under threat of being sent to a labour camp for an indeterminate period if they were not considered by authorities to have mourned sufficiently.

I don’t doubt there are abrasive people in every society, but the general conduct of Reiko (Kae Alexander) makes her almost impossible to warm to – she is even abrupt with characters that are trying to be helpful, and doesn’t seem to have a kind word for anyone. As I say, there probably are people like her in the world, but I’ve yet to meet a Japanese person in real life who is nearly as rude: I just about stop short of saying the fate of Hanako (Kirsty Rider) should have been reserved for Reiko instead. Reiko isn’t the only one-dimensional character not furnished with much, if any, character development. The Official (Kwong Loke) steadfastly remains a loyal servant to the North Korea he loves so much, for instance.

Hanako does develop as a person, but much of that is under duress. Tetsuo (Leo Wan) grows from being the happy-go-lucky boy-next-door to being a determined investigative reporter, the only credible investigator in the show. Inspector Takeshi (David Yip) is, to be blunt, useless, especially in his interrogation methods, and had he been working for the North Korean authorities, his lack of results would ensure he would have been, ahem, dealt with. But wouldn’t the characters’ response to the play’s critical incident change with the passing of time, even slightly?

The set is impressive, with scene changes allowing for some breathing space in an otherwise dark and gloomy storyline. The video projections (Luke Halls) are a sight to behold. But in terms of narrative, a little too much is given away, far too soon, making the final scenes less impactful than they might have been. A slow burner, it’s not difficult to follow proceedings, but the script is far from nuanced and the production could do with more subtlety.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Comaweng

On a Japanese beach, teenage sisters Hanako (Kirsty Rider) and Reiko (Kae Alexander) are caught up in a storm. Reiko survives while Hanako is lost to the sea. Their mother (Rosalind Chao), however, can’t shake the feeling that her missing daughter is still alive, and soon family tragedy takes on a global political dimension. Set in Japan and North Korea, Francis Turnly’s epic new thriller is directed by Artistic Director of the Tricycle Theatre Indhu Rubasingham in a co-production with the Tricycle Theatre.

Cast includes Kae Alexander, Rosalind Chao, Tuyen Do, Vincent Lai, Kwong Loke, Frances Mayli McCann, Kirsty Rider, Leo Wan and David Yip. Design by Tom Piper, video design by Luke Halls, lighting design by Oliver Fenwick, music by David Shrubsole, sound design by Alex Caplen, movement direction by Polly Bennett and fight direction by Kev McCurdy.

Developed, while on a Channel 4 playwriting bursary at the Tricycle, The Great Wave won the Catherine Johnson Best Play Award in 2016.

Rosalind Chao is appearing with the support of UK Equity, incorporating the Variety Artistes’ Federation, pursuant to an exchange programme between American Equity and UK Equity.

a co-production with the Tricycle Theatre
a new play by Francis Turnly
Previews from 10 March, press night 19 March, playing until 14 April at the Dorfman Theatre


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