The Great Wave (National Theatre, Dorfman)

Posted: March 24, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Francis Turnly      Director: Indhu Rubasingham


It is ironic that the latest in a long line of successes for the Dorfman Theatre should be unveiled in a week when the National Theatre’s Artistic Director Rufus Norris has been under increasing pressure over the use of his largest space, the Olivier. Let’s face it, four turkeys out of five new productions is not going to impress anyone, but it is hardly the fault of the Olivier that the wrong shows are being put into it. Perhaps part of the problem is that the current crop of playwrights, many of them just brilliant, are writing for intimate spaces like the Almeida, Royal Court, Hampstead and, yes, the Dorfman. Last year, Michael Billington in The Guardian criticised Norris for neglecting the classics and (ignoring the fact that Macbeth is a classic) perhaps he should take heed when programming for the Olivier in future rather than looking for new work that is either not good enough or does not suit the space.

The Great Wave could have been performed on a grander scale in the Olivier, but its essence would have been lost. Francis Turnly’s play, getting its world premiere, is a rare example of theatre being used as a medium for story-telling. The previous play in the Dorfman, John, was all about characters and underlying themes, but this is the exact opposite; the characters are not explored in depth, some are even stereotypes and there is no discernible sub-text, but these things hardly matter, because we are being told a fascinating little-known story based on fact, presented in chronological order with the precision and clarity of a film documentary.

The story begins in 1979 in coastal Japan. 17-year-old Hanako (Kirsty Rider) lives an ordinary (and very American-looking) quiet life with her mother and year-older sister. One night, after a row with said sister, she is walking along the beach and she disappears. We next see her in a North Korean prison, being forced to show allegiance to that country’s “dear leader” and preparing to become involved in an espionage plot. Back in Japan, her family begins to suspect that she may not have been swept away by a great wave as first thought and they join forces with other families who have lost members in similar circumstances to try to persuade the erstwhile indifferent Japanese government to take action. This play needs to be viewed as a suspense thriller, so plot revelations must end there.

In the the climate of 2018, there is little that we do not know about the authoritarianism of North Korea’s Kim dynasty and the extent of citizens’ brainwashing shown here is shocking but hardly surprising. However, the play’s most chilling moment comes when Hanako admits complete ignorance of Japanese atrocities in World War II, making us realise how brainwashing can also occur in supposed democracies. Indhu Rubasingham’s fluid production is helped along greatly by Tom Piper’s ingenious, three-sided revolving set, which ensures that not a second of the play’s 150 minutes is wasted (apart from the interval). If you want theatre that offers impeccable acting and a profound examination of the human condition, then it is a shame if you missed John. This is another kind of theatre and it is just as thrilling.

Performance date: 20 March 2018

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