Reviews West End & Central Published 20 March 2018

Review: The Great Wave at the National Theatre

Until 14 April 2018

Blood is thicker than water: Ava Davies writes on Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave.

Ava Wong Davies
The Great Wave at the National Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet.

The Great Wave at the National Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet.

I’m not Korean. I’m not Japanese. I’m half Chinese-Malay, half white. I look white. I feel like I look more and more white the older I get. I have no discernable, obvious link to the story of The Great Wave aside from the fact that the people onstage resemble, if not me, then my Ma, my Jie jie, my Goh goh, my Popo, my Ah yee.

I’m not sure if this will be a review. Let’s get some fundamental things out of the way first.

The plot is bonkers. I didn’t know anything about it going in and as soon as the lights came up for the interval I was scrabbling at my programme, unable to believe that this story – some of this story – is Someone’s Story. It’s about Japan and North Korea. It’s about sisters and mothers and daughters and family ties. Anything else would spoil the fun (do I mean ‘fun’?)

What do I have in common with this story? The Japanese, the Koreans, they’re not the same as the Chinese, as the Malay. I want to fight against the monolithic, slanty-eyed stereotype, not burst into tears every time I see someone onstage who looks vaguely East Asian. Our stories – their stories – because they’re not really mine – shouldn’t be treated as if they’re the same. So why did I leave the Dorfman sobbing my eyes out? I felt – and this is stupid – and this is anxiety talking – like people were looking at me and thinking, “Why is that white girl crying so much at a story that isn’t even hers?” And part of me wanted to say – no – listen – no – look – I’m Asian – I am – I can prove it – look at my baby pictures – I promise – but then what would that really prove?

China is not Korea. Japan is not Malaysia. I know these things.

The play itself – if I look at it from a purely critical perspective – which I can’t really do but let’s give it a go – it’s deeply flawed. Plot is favoured over everything else, certain lines of dialogue clank onto the ground dully, the emotions are dialled up to 11 from the get-go and fundamentally I didn’t really – not really – believe the relationships I was seeing up there. But there was something. There was Something. I rolled my eyes but I sobbed too, sometimes (a lot of the time) simultaneously.

Family is everything. Family comes first. Blood is thicker than water. Always remember that. If you put me into a nursing home, then I will die and I will come back as a ghost just to haunt you. This has been drilled into me since birth.

Etsuko’s single-mindedness, Reiko’s dedication, Hanako’s loyalty – maybe the characters are just one-note, maybe my perception is clouded by my emotion. But I know see my Popo in Reiko, my Jie jie in Etsuko, my Mama in Hanako.

I cried because I recognised some part of myself up there, not just in emotion but in culture and in actual goddamn physicality and phenotype and I didn’t realise how much I needed it. I cried because I know Francis Turnly is mixed race and writes about identity, and so do I and here he is being programmed at the Dorfman. I cried because it was an entirely East Asian cast up on the National’s stage, only a few months after The Barbershop Chronicles blew that stuffy white audience away and I am grateful for Barbershop, and for Nine Night, and for Misty, and for Boys, and for all these plays which chip away at the status quo and I am ready for more silenced stories to finally be heard. I saw parts of my family on that stage, I saw interactions up there that I’ve seen in other plays, white plays (better plays), except that these interactions were contained in bodies that looked a little bit more like mine, like my Ma’s, like my Popo’s. I cried because this is the closest I’ve come to feeling represented in the medium that I love and it’s still nowhere near what I am and what I am made up of.

The Great Wave is on until 14 April 2018 at the National Theatre. Click here for more details.

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Ava Wong Davies is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: The Great Wave at the National Theatre Show Info


Directed by Indhu Rubasingham

Written by Francis Turnly

Cast includes Rosalind Chao, Kirsty Rider, Leo Wan

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