It’s a fantastic story, in that it’s one that is almost impossible to believe – yet, more fantastically, true – and brimming with potential. Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave is the first full-length production I’ve seen with an entirely East Asian cast, and for that reason I shared Ava Davies’ emotions, watching this, even as someone who is not Korean or Japanese. The most important aspect of The Great Wave is its story, and if possible, going in blind as I did protects its fantastic elements for you.
The questions the play raises about racial identity and to what extent it can be assimilated and learnt had perhaps more of an effect on me because of the layers of implication for any Asians of the diaspora in the audience (of which there were not many). Watching, I wondered whether any other reviewers would talk about or notice the names of the actors, which are mainly Chinese; The Great Wave made me think about whether ideally, all the actors would be Korean and Japanese, or if some of us only care about this because it’s so seldom we see our stories taken seriously anyway. It’ll probably come to matter less and less, though some of the pronunciation of Japanese names can be shaky here, and will thus take certain audience members out of it while not bothering many westerners.
Tom Piper’s design here is gorgeous: a tatami room with realistic details inside, split into sections which rotate according to location and which part of the story we are following. The sound and visual effects of the titular wave are furious and breathtaking, and altogether Indhu Rubasingham’s direction makes for a smooth production. Some of the acting, however, is less than strong: there’s a lot of shouting when something understated could be more powerful, and a lot of abruptly standing up and facing the other way during disagreements, which nearly always comes across as artificial.
Kae Alexander (who has always deserved things beyond Bad Education) as Reiko becomes more arresting as her character frays into an adult who has put her life on hold, obsessed with the night her sister disappeared and with her own possible guilt. Kirsty Rider’s Hanako is very strong indeed, and it was a pleasure to see Rosalind Chao (who was a part of the brilliant Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23). All the actors, however, have to do their best with a script which is functional above all else; the story beats come exactly as expected, and I feel that lines such as “It’s been x years since…” should be avoided as far as possible and certainly not repeated.
A stronger script might have been able to balance the story as it splits, for most of the play, down the middle between Japan and Korea. The relationships are so much tenser and the stakes so much higher for the action in Korea that the Japan scenes lag a little by comparison, and the play touches on so much – comfort women, an eerie theme of girls doubling each other, political accountability, war crimes – that a refocusing of the script or some simple rewriting of some scenes might have made these subjects feel more competently dealt with.
But altogether The Great Wave is a welcome play at the National – it shook me, it made me tear up, and as it settles into itself, it will likely become an even more assured beast. Which it should by all means do: it has such a story to get out there.
The Great Wave is playing at the National Theatre until 14 April. It is a co-production with Tricycle Theatre.
Photo: Mark Douet