In the 1980s, a curious phenomenon was identified in coastal towns in Japan. People were going missing; ordinary people who were going out for walks on the beaches and cliffs were disappearing, vanishing into thin air, without any sign of a struggle, suicide or washed-up body.
It turned out that a small number of Japanese citizens were abducted by North Korean agents hiding out in boats in Japanese waters, to be whistled back to Pyongyang where they were forced to train North Korean spies in Japanese language, culture and social habits.
This extraordinary and both terrifying and bizarre practice came to light after North Korea blew up Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, killing 115 people, when it materialised that the agents who planted the bomb had been trained in assimilation by the very people who had been abducted from their home towns on the Japanese coast.
And it is these extraordinary events that form the basis of this new play from Francis Turnly.
Hanako (Kirsty Rider) and Reiko (Kae Alexander) are teenage sisters. And like teenage sisters they bicker and fight. And one stormy night their petty arguments cause Hanako to march out of the house in a huff. Only she never comes back.
At first, it’s thought she’s been murdered by a local schoolmate, Tetsuo (Leo Wan). Then when no body is ever found, the police decide Hanako was swept out to sea by a great wave in the storm, and they advise her mother (Rosalind Chao) and sister to move on with their lives. Only they refuse, unwilling to accept the police’s verdict. There must be another explanation.
And there is. For Hanako is being held in a secure and secret compound outside Pyongyang where she has been instructed to train a young agent, Jung Sun (Tuyen Do). The promise of a return to Japan if she complies is dangled over her continuously as a cruel incentive as Hanako fears that she instead is being indoctrinated into a new identity as a North Korean citizen, where she must forget her past and her family if she is to survive and thrive.
The subject matter for this play is enthralling, but, the execution does have its issues. Dialogue is clunky, too on-the-nose and each character seems to say what they think. There’s little space for internal conflict or the ebb and flow of belief, even for the anguished family back in Japan. Only Hanako is spared this indignity as she struggles to maintain two identities – giving herself the hope of a future in a world that has robbed her of her past. The characters feel two-dimensional, especially those in North Korea who fall into painfully stereotypical portrayals.
These issues are all evident within the first ten minutes (so much so that I was almost beginning to regret coming) yet by the end, I had tears in my eyes for this is a hugely affecting play that manages to overcome its detractions to create a highly charged second half and an emotional finale.
How does it manage that? Because of two blisteringly good performances from Kae Alexander and Kirsty as the two sisters, and because its key themes of faith, loyalty, and the role of sacrifice and self-sacrifice for the ones we love are dramatised beautifully by director Indu Rubasingham who builds up the tension wonderfully. And let’s hear it for representation too. In this world of continuing challenges for diverse and inclusive representation, that is not to be sniffed at one bit. Bravo.
National Theatre, London, to April 14, 2018.
Tickets from £15.
All production photos by Mark Douet.
Director: Indhu Rubasingham
Designer: Tom Piper
Video Designer: Luke Halls
Lighting Designer: Oliver Fenwick
Music: David Shrubsole
Sound Designer: Alexander Caplen
Movement Director: Polly Bennett
Fight Director: Kev McCurdy