When Francis Turnly set out to write a sweeping, epic story of two sisters and their place in two disparate countries, no word was left unturned.
Turnly’s first draft of what has manifested into the United States premiere of “The Great Wave,” running through Oct. 27th at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, was a whopping 300 pages, which for Turnly was entirely too long. And once he whittled the show down, it was still running at a pretty hefty clip.
So Turnly decided to do something pretty unconventional to get it down even further.
He turned one show into two.
“I decided to make scenes shorter and straight to the point,” said Turnly. “It was important to blend scenes together that take place between North Korean and Japan, but the scenes were quite boring. So we decided that scenes should take place at the same time and intercut dialogue so that the audience is attune to what’s happening.
“It’s not a device we use all the time, but something we use now and again.”
Turnly’s story, which made its world premiere in 2018 at the National Theatre in London, examines the relationship between two teenage sisters who live in a Japanese coastal town in 1979, young girls who impulsively run onto a beach during a massive storm. Only one of the sisters survives as the other is swept out to sea, but the mother of the girls refuses to give up hope, believing that her daughter has survived.
Turnly, the Northern Ireland native born to an Irish father and Japanese mother, was challenged by how to balance his storytelling in the piece. It was critical for him to pay attention equally to each country, with a strong need to examine the geopolitics of two very distinct nations and their relations to each other.
“I guess I wanted to give Japan and North Korea equal footing and equal voice,” said Turnly, 45. “I didn’t want anything to weigh too heavily in either country, and it was quite difficult to do but I think we have achieved it.”
For someone like Turnly, who spends quite a bit of his time in London, utilizing the neighborhood of New Malden proved critical to his play. New Malden is estimated to have 20,000 Koreans living in the area, including about 600 from North Korea, a community that Turnly tapped into incessantly for his dramaturgy.
Access to North Korea is limited, a country Turnly has never visited. Not that he is making it any kind of priority anyways. After all, any visits there are highly guarded, often providing an extremely sanitized version of the country’s dynamics to the visitor, especially when cameras are rolling.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people from South Korea and some from North Korea, and they gave me a strong sense of what those countries are like.”
What has also given this United States premiere a huge artistic boost is the return to Berkeley Rep of director Mark Wing-Davey for his sixth production with the company. It was Wing-Davey,’s thrilling direction of Caryl Churchill’s “Mad Forest,” in Berkeley, a play set in Romania, that had quite an impact on Turnly. The abilities for a director that can work within all of the nuances of language and culture helped inform greatly the sharpness and richness of Turnly’s piece.
“Working with Mark gave us so many great insights into the piece as well,” said Turnly. “The actors had a way of rehearsing for (the artistic team), they got comfortable and really delved into the characters.”
For now, on the cusp of a major United States run, Turnly acknowledges all of the differences from the world premiere. Rewriting is a constant all the way to opening night while filling a theatre in Berkeley that is 200 seats larger. And with that extra space comes a much greater commitment to use more sweeping set pieces and visual metaphors.
“I guess this is a chance to watch a more epic play, and hopefully more productions like it going forward.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents the United States premiere of “The Great Wave”
Written by Francis Turnly
Directed by Mark Wing-Davey
The Roda Theatre
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes with one intermission
Through Oct. 27th
Tickets range from $29.50 – $97
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org