It may be the most secretive country on the planet, but every detail we learn about North Korea blows you away. Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave tells a tale of abduction, espionage and diplomacy between two neighbours in an utterly gripping, heart-breaking new play.
Inspired by a number of extraordinary true stories from the 1970s, Hanako, a 17-year-old Japanese schoolgirl, is snatched from her coastal hometown during a colossal storm. As her mother and sister try to piece together how she was taken, Hanako wakes up in a cell, bare but for a picture of Kim Il-Sung, the Great Leader of North Korea. Her duty, as it is put to her, is to learn Korean fluently, so she can then train a spy-in-waiting in everything there is to know about being Japanese.
Director Indhu Rubasingham approached the National about staging the play here, as the scale of the play demanded a production larger than the Tricycle Theatre - where she is artistic director - would be able to mount. Tom Piper’s lo-fi blocky design features a room that spins and slides across the stage as we skip through the episodes of Hanako’s story: her embedding into the secretive state, her arranged marriage to a Korean man and the birth of their child, the realisation that she’ll never return home. Back at home, over the course of the two and a half decades, sister Etsuko and school friend Tetsuo, an aspiring journalist, pinpoint a pattern of other Japanese disappearing, with abduction to Korea the only explanation.
While parts of Turnly’s story may seem hard to believe, when presented alongside the weird world of North Korea, it all seems to make sense. While you can tell Hanako professing her love for the Great Leader is simply reciting lines she has been taught in the hope she can return home (or simply won’t be shot), that’s how North Koreans are brainwashed. They believe if they are caught not pretending to cry enough at the death of their leader, then they will be in danger. It’s a completely alien, fascinating world.
As we know very little of what happens in the country, it can be difficult to digest those who disappear or die in gulags as anything but a statistic. What The Great Wave does is zoom in, and explore the humanity behind one off these cases (there were at least 13 abductions North Korea admitted to). We see the sisters grow old into their 40s, their mother become a fragile woman, and Tetsuo fulfil his ambition and become the reporter who eventually brings attention and change to the situation.
The cast, who speak with English accents throughout, are excellent, especially in the moments of heightened, over-exuberant emotion that is characteristic of these cultures. Kirsty Rider puts in a moving central performance as Hanako. From rebellious teen to anguished mother, she covers the spectrum and is certainly one to watch. Kwong Loke and Tuyen Do are also very convincing as menacing members of the NK military.
Photo credit Mark Douet