Daniel Nelson

'The Great Wave' is the surge that apparently washes a Japanese teenager out to sea.

The Great Wave

The Great Wave

Image by Dorfman, National Theatre

It could also be a metaphor for other components of this fascinating play at the National Theatre about an bizarre episode in Japan's recent history: the wave of emotion that the girl's bereft mother, Etsuko, and sister Reiko feel and which fuels a barely discernible glimmer of hope that Hanako will someday return; the wave goodbye that Hanako is forced to make in order to secure her return; and the wave of greeting that mother and sister make to welcome back the disappeared.

Francis Turnley's drama (winner of a best play award in 2016) is inspired by North Korea's kidnap of a small number of Japanese citizens in the 1970s. It's played out on a revolving set that glides from domestic scene to security installation, allowing the interplay of the personal and the political.

The personal plays out in the lives of the two sisters, severed as abruptly and irrevocably as a metal bar that shatters under stress, the grieving mother, the boy, Tetsuo, who the neighbours suspect of murdering Hanako, and the man who is surprisingly thrust into Hanako's life. There are more plot twists than in a Scandy thriller.

The political, usually the rock on which theatre founders, is mostly handled well, apart from a few clunky attempts to shoe-horn explanations to an audience presumed to know virtually nothing about the background to these extraordinary events. But a few didactic moments are more than outweighed by the plus of highlighting a geopolitical issue that consumed a vital Asian ally and trading partner and the memory of which is an element in the current delicate balancing act on the Korean peninsular.

Towards the end, the sense of wrapping up and doing justice to a complex story spread over a quarter-century starts to feel a little stretched, though it culminates in a final strong twist.

Perhaps because the writing and acting are good but not brilliant the play never quite manages to whip up a storm to match the audience-jerking bolt with which it begins, but it's an absorbing evening with more heft than a dozen West End shows.

  • The Great Wave is at the Dorfman, National Theatre, Upper Ground, South Bank, SE1  until 14 April. Info: 7452 3000/ nationaltheatre.org.uk

  • + 28 March, director Indhu Rubasingham and writer Francis Turnly, 6-6.45pm, £7/£5

  • + 9 April, The Lovers and the Despot, screening, 5.30pm, Cottesloe room, £5/£3

  • + 10 April, Inside the world's most secretive nation, 6-7pm, Cottesloe room, £7/£5. Info: nationaltheatre.org.uk/talks



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