Indhu Rubasingham’s production of Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave washes ashore in London at an interesting moment. In a global political climate in which messages from the North Korean government alternate, almost daily, between threats of nuclear strikes against South Korea and the United States, to proclamations of harmony across the peninsula, the story of Japanese citizens abducted by the Hermit Kingdom in the 1970s and 80s is particularly resonant. Despite a few missteps in pacing and cultural representation, the piece is emotionally satisfying, and informative, bringing to light a historical episode little known in the west.
The play opens in 1979 as Japanese sisters Reiko (Kae Alexander) and Hanako (Kirsty Rider) return home from school with their mother, Etsuko (Rosalind Chao). Studious Reiko tires of her free-spirited younger sibling’s interruptions, and dares the teenager to follow a neighbourhood boy to the beach during a storm. Both girls are caught up in the waves. Hanako disappears. What the police and her frantic family do not know is that the girl, like a number of her fellow citizens, has been kidnapped by North Korean soldiers, who need her language skills and cultural knowledge to train their spies. After the abduction, the play’s action splits, following Hanako’s life under the crushing totalitarian regime, and her traumatized family’s desperate search for answers regarding her disappearance.
Designer Tom Piper’s set is a small-scale wonder. Two rooms and a hallway constructed with traditional Japanese panel doors, the set rotates and shifts laterally on the stage to move the action from Japan to North Korea and back. Overall, the production makes exceptionally good use of the Dorfman Theatre’s space, using downstage areas for alternate locations and projecting videos. Kirsty Rider as Hanako effectively matures and evolves her character to communicate the passing of time—the play spans nearly thirty years—and the weight of oppression. Rosalind Chao as the girls’ tormented mother has a number of strong scenes, though it is Vincent Lai as Hanako’s North Korean husband, Kum-Chol, who generates the play’s emotional climax. His account of causing his family’s death in an internment camp is the testament of a man for whom abject terror has been a life-long companion. Guilt dogs both characters and nations. North Koreans’ anger at Japanese use of Korean “comfort women” during the war is unabated, and both sisters imagine their bereft lives as punishment for their treatment of one another.
The production does falter in two respects. The need to traverse almost three decades of history over two hours of stage time results in some idiosyncratic pacing. Some scenes extend, while others are brief checkpoints as the action jumps a decade. The effect is disorienting. More significant, despite what my seatmate described as “very good North Korean accents” from a number of the cast members, there was little in the manner of the actors portraying Japanese citizens to differentiate them culturally from their North Korean counterparts, or indeed, from typical western Europeans or North Americans. Detective Takeshi’s (David Yip) interrogation of local boy Tetsuo (Leo Wan) seemed lifted directly from Dirty Harry.
In spite of a few shortcomings, The Great Wave is a refreshing night at the theatre, demonstrating that what’s past is indeed prologue to the complicated, and haunted present.