London Student

The Great Wave at the National Theatre

Anthony Walker-Cook considers the very timely The Great Wave, a new play at the National Theatre by Francis Turnly. In the intimate Dorfman Theatre The Great Wave depicts different cultures but the theme of family strongly runs throughout the work.

It’s scary to think that a Japanese student could storm out of her house one night after a fight with her sister, be abducted by North Korea to train spies, and never be seen by her family again. Yet this is what happens to Hanako (Kirsty Rider) in Francis Turnly’s new play The Great Wave. The rest of the play sees her family’s attempt to bring her home, the exposition of this abduction operation, and Hanaoko’s training and assimilation into the North Korean state. For the West, the history behind Turnly’s narrative is little known, but Robert Boynton’s essay on Japan’s Missing People in the programme details this horrifying event (and should be read in conjunction with the play). Spanning between 1979 and 2003, The Great Wave is an urgent and resonant dramatization of these events that feels as appropriate now as it would have done had these events been exposed in their own contemporary moment. Compounded to this is our consistent present intrigue with North Korea and its ruler, and where Twitter exchanges of what would be potential nuclear holocaust with a certain president are constantly unnervingly laughable. Watching Turnly’s new play The Great Wave can be an unnerving experience for both its content and its cultural difference. Certainly, The Great Wave has crashed into this shore at an important time.

Kirsty Rider, Rosalind Chao, Kae Alexander in The Great Wave. Photograph: Mark Douet

In a culture industry wherein claims of whitewashing of Asian casts are so common – think Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell or Netflix’s Iron Fist from 2017 alone – it’s important that this cast is comprised of East Asian actors. If perhaps little distinguishes Japanese characters from North Korean ones other than setting (accents are not used), under Indhu Rubasingham’s direction the majority of roles are well acted. As leads, Kirsty Rider and Kae Alexander ably push their respective narratives of Hanako and Reiko, with Rider especially toing the difficult line between rebellion and subjugation to the North Korean ideology. Until the end we are unsure whether she acts out of the necessity to survive or if she really has taken on the mentality of her new home. Leo Wan’s Tetsuo is energetic, if petulant; David Yip plays two roles, Takeshi and Jiro, both government officials, hinting towards some elements of Japanese culpability and the red-tape issues that can arise when international relations hangs in the balance.


Yet it was Rosalind Chao’s Etsuko and Kwong Loke’s anonymously-titled Official that brought the emotional weight to the production. With Chao and Loke as mother and captor respectively, the two offer an interesting mediation on the theme of family. We learn that Tuyen Do’s Jung Sun (who is trained by Rider and is executed in Japan) was Loke’s daughter. Where Chao brings an emotional fragility, Loke’s apparent harsh exterior only melts at the end when he mediates on his daughter’s death with Rider. If separated by different environments, and political and cultural ideologies, the bond between parent and child reveals the mutual and inevitable pain of loss. With this theme of family Turnly goes further in Vincent Lai’s intricate Kum-Choi, whom Rider’s Hanako marries whilst in captivity. Kum-Choi’s family were killed in an internment camp and to which he will return at the play’s conclusion, the damaged and empty looks by Lai emphasising his distress and scarred past.


The production is aided innumerably by Tom Piper’s set design, a revolving set of rooms that surprisingly captures both the spartan North Korea and the homely aesthetic of Japan. Walls move and shift, creating further spaces. As such this malleable setting is amply adequate for the fast-changing scenes between the two countries. Whilst the sound design is also evocative, Alexander Caplen’s scene transitions did perhaps become repetitive as the evening progressed, but Luke Halls’s videos again diversified an otherwise simple set. Dramaturgically the design of The Great Wave facilitates its plot, yet the quick jumps in time – remember the play covers a period of twenty-four years – especially during the second act become increasingly jolting by contrast to the slower-paced and more contemplative first.

Kwong Loke, Kirsty Rider Rosalind Chao in The Great Wave. Photograph: Mark Douet.

With sisters contemplating the lives they could have led, sons whose guilt follows them through life, and parents emotionally distraught, it is difficult to accept the world Frances Mayli McCann’s Hana enters into (she is the daughter of Hanako and Kum-Choi). Sacrifices by both her mother and father mean the play ends with Hana living with her aunt and the final lighting of a lantern to float into the recesses of the theatre does little to reconcile the audience to the events of the play. Yet this is the beauty of The Great Wave, which is quietly emotional throughout and comes highly recommended.

The Great Wave is playing in the Dorfman Theatre at the National until 14th April.

Anthony Walker-Cook

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. Alongside academic commitments he has several reviews forthcoming with major journals, including Notes and Queries, and contributes to other theatre websites. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: