Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents the U.S. premiere of Francis Turnly’s “The Great Wave.” (Courtesy Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

‘Great Wave’ playwright wants to wash away stereotypes

Francis Turnly’s drama touches on Japanese, North Korean relations

Two teenage girls play on a beach in Japan during a storm. Reiko survives a large, unexpected wave breaking ground, but Hanako is swept away. Or is she? It’s the question that drives the political thriller “The Great Wave,” now in previews at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Real events inspired Irish-Japanese playwright Francis Turnly, who shares his time and talents evenly between stage work at venues like the National Theatre in London and screen projects for Film 4 and other British producers.

“The Great Wave” is part of a trilogy that includes “Harajuku Girls” and “Neko,” but each work stands on its own.

“They’re not related at all,” he says in his soft, clipped brogue. “Although sometimes characters would perhaps be talked about in one play and the audience might recognize that as a character from a previous play.”

Driving the narrative in this play are Reiko (played by Yurié Collins) and her mother Etsuko (Sharon Omi). Both are convinced that Hanako (Jo Mei) is still alive, and that conviction carries them through the minefield of relations between the governments of Japan and North Korea over two decades.

Describing more would require spoiler alerts.

The Bay Area is hosting the play’s American premiere, following a production in London directed by Indhu Rubasingham in 2018. Turnly is actively refining the work to its new setting and resources.

“I’m actually rewriting it at the minute,” he says. “I imagine I’ll still be rewriting it well into opening night. The director, Mark Wing-Davey, is well known for doing quite epic plays, so I’m trying to accommodate that. Also, the National was 400 seats. Berkeley Rep is a much bigger theater.”

Cognizant of the timeliness of his play vis-à-vis North Korea’s current role on the world stage, Turnly seeks to keep the focus on the humanity of his characters and on ways to focus on individuals over tropes.

“I’d like Americans to see the East Asian community as a very large community and not necessarily certain stereotypes. I hope I’ve shown Japan and Korea in a believable light. A lot of people see North Korea as a dangerous country, but I wanted to see them as normal people trying to get through life and dealing with obstacles. Maybe not big obstacles like Westerners might face, but just the everyday obstacles of a North Korean family surviving in the ’80s and the ’90s.”


The Great Wave

Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Where: Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 27

Tickets: $29.50 to $97

Contact: (510) 647–2949,

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