The Great Wave

This has been an epic tale, in a smallish space, that has pushed my ethos of creating simple and evocative spaces to the  limit. Francis Turnly’s play was three years in development and always multi locational, as we worked on it with director Indhu Rubasingham it became clear that the script was going to keep changing with whole scenes and locations shifting as the story evolved through workshops. So the design had to be fluid , not just to the storytelling needs of the 33 scenes, but also to the possibility that we might need to find a way to suggest a new location at any point. At its heart the play is very personal story of loss and survival, told from the point of view of an ordinary family from a small seaside town in Japan when one of 2 sisters disappears in a storm (the great wave of the title).It begins in 1979 and finishes in 2003 , inspired by the true story of mysterious disappearances from Japan, which turned out to be kidnappings by North Korea, so they could use the Japanese nationals to train up their spies!

Most of the locations were small scale , with the characters shut out from a wider view of the world, apart from occasional scenes on a beach in both nations: the sea uniting and dividing the family. So I developed a box with sliding screens that could revolve and track within the space (brilliantly engineered by the NT team) By keeping the walls uniform and all clad in the same textured paper the spaces created by revolving or sliding the screens could suggest many locations; a Japanese living space, police cell, school room or North Korean home. By sliding the cube upstage we could evoke a larger landscape of beaches or the cityscape of

The Great Wave by Francis Turnly at the National Theatre
Indhu Rubasingham
Tom Piper
Video Designer
Luke Halls
Lighting Designer
Oliver Fenwick
David Shrubsole
Sound Designer
Alex Caplen
Movement Director
Polly Bennett
Fight Director
Kev McCurdy
Kae Alexander
Chike Chan
Rosalind Chao
Tuyen Do
Vincent Lai
Kwong Loke
Frances Mayli McCann
Kirsty Rider
Leo Wan
David Yip


The design was brought to life through video from Luke Halls who managed (by swapping out the server on the third preview!) to track the movement of the cube so that images rotated and drifted with it or were swept away by giant waves. Exemplary lighting on a challenging set from Oli Fenwick too, tracking figures as they revolved round so we could keep multiple spaces alive and maintain  a visual dialogue  between the worlds.

The play builds to a highly emotional climax and I am really proud that together we have found a way of telling  such a complex story in  a fluid way that enhances the narrative drive.

the Guardian



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