The Great Wave review – gripping mystery of North Korea kidnap scandal

Dorfman, London
Francis Turnly’s drama drills to the heart of the harsh politics and complex emotions surrounding a series of historic abductions of young Japanese people

Sometimes a play grips because of its subject. Such is the case with this new piece by Francis Turnly which, although dramaturgically conventional, opens up the story of the abduction by North Korea of young Japanese citizens.

Documentaries and movies have been made about this, but Turnly’s play seems especially timely as we struggle to understand life inside Kim Jong-un’s hermit state.

Turnly’s chronological approach spans the years from 1979 to 2003 and covers the mysterious disappearance of a Japanese schoolgirl. The 17-year-old Hanako is young, bolshy and restless. One stormy night, after one of her regular spats with her elder sister, she rushes off to the beach in pursuit of their schoolmate Tetsuo. The rest of the action splits between two locales. In Japan, we see Hanako’s sister, mother and Tetsuo tirelessly seeking to discover what happened to her. In North Korea, we see the captive Hanako being employed to teach a young woman of her own age Japanese language and culture for reasons that gradually become clear.

Rosalind Chao, David Yip, Tuyen Do, Chike Chan, Kae Alexander in The Great Wave by Francis Turnly.
Rosalind Chao, David Yip, Tuyen Do, Chike Chan, Kae Alexander in The Great Wave by Francis Turnly. Photograph: Mark Douet

I was strongly reminded of two recent plays at London’s Finborough. As with In-Sook Chappell’s P’yongyang, we glimpse the mixture of veneration and rigidity that characterises North Korea, while the idea that one’s identity can be changed by physical circumstance echoes the theme of Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa. But Turnly’s strength lies in his ability to tell a fascinating story and to show how realpolitik intrudes on personal tragedy: if Hanako’s relatives are confronted by stonewalling Tokyo officials in their quest for truth, it is because Japan is desperately anxious not to provoke a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Indhu Rubasingham’s production, co-presented with the Tricycle, rightly focuses on swift storytelling and is much aided by Tom Piper’s design of a rotating cube that shifts easily between the two settings. Kirsty Rider captures perfectly Hanako’s enforced assimilation to her new surroundings; there is good work from Rosalind Chao and Kae Alexander as her mother and sister respectively, and Leo Wan impresses as the tenacious Tetsuo, even if his ability to solve the problem of Hanako’s disappearance makes him sound like a Tokyo Sherlock Holmes. Formally, Turnly’s play breaks no new ground but it draws one’s rapt attention to a scandal that long obsessed the people of Japan.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'I didn't fancy being stuck in North Korea': the stormy thriller by a Japanese Ulsterman
In Francis Turnly’s trilogy one schoolgirl becomes a cat and another goes missing. The sheep farmer turned dramatist discusses The Great Wave

Mark Lawson

14, Mar, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Wife review – rousing look at 60 years of sexual identity
Samuel Adamson’s stimulating family saga revolves around Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and is inventively staged by Indhu Rubasingham

Michael Billington

05, Jun, 2019 @10:36 AM

Article image
Holy Sh!t review – parents go to war over school places
Alexis Zegerman’s comedy exposes middle-class hypocrisy as couples battle to get their children into the top local primary

Michael Billington

11, Sep, 2018 @9:20 AM

Article image
Sex tapes and acid attacks: Anupama Chandrasekhar, the playwright shocking India
Her dramas confront the growing horrors facing women in India today. Now she’s reworked Ibsen’s Ghosts, taking out the syphilis and putting in the Delhi bus gang rape of 2012

Arifa Akbar

28, Oct, 2019 @4:38 PM

Article image
Mama, just killed a samurai! How Japan used Queen to liven up Romeo and Juliet
How do you give the star-cross’d lovers a lift? Drop them in 12th-century Japan and add a classic Queen album. As it opens in Britain, A Night at the Kabuki sends shivers down our writer’s spine

Arifa Akbar

21, Sep, 2022 @4:02 PM

Article image
The celebrated assassin: the play about Gandhi’s killer, still dividing India
Having written about sex tapes and the Delhi bus gang-rape, Anupama Chandrasekhar is tackling Nathuram Godse, the gunman who was raised as a girl – and is now a hero to Hindu nationalists

Ammar Kalia

16, May, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
How The Great Game emptied the Pentagon
At the height of the turmoil in Egypt, 1,200 Pentagon staff went off to the theatre for a day. Director Nicolas Kent relives how he seduced the US military

Nicolas Kent

01, Mar, 2011 @9:29 PM

Article image
The Father and the Assassin review – gripping tale of the man who killed Gandhi
Anupama Chandrasekhar artfully unpicks the forces of history with a tale of violence and colonialism that echoes into today

Claire Armitstead

20, May, 2022 @9:36 AM

Article image
Pass Over review – fiercely relevant and compelling
Antoinette Nwandu’s powerful absurdist urban tragedy sees two black homeless men – cowed by the ever-present threat of police brutality – pursue their own American dream

Arifa Akbar

20, Feb, 2020 @1:22 PM

Article image
Jane Eyre review – gripping, good-hearted and full of gothic terror
Jessica Baglow captures the plain-speaking pragmatism of Charlotte Brontë’s heroine in a light and lucid adaptation directed by Elizabeth Newman

Mark Fisher

22, Jan, 2018 @11:00 PM