“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Rather than being spoken, this quote – taken from a 1939 speech by Adolf Hitler – is projected onto the rear wall of the Finborough as you enter, setting the tone for this sobering piece of documentary theatre. Neil McPherson’s I Wish To Die Singing – Voices from the Armenian Genocide is pulled together from a range of sources – eyewitness accounts and personal testimonies, the worlds of academia and poetry, photographs and music, Cher and Kim Kardashian – to mark the precise centenary of the beginnings of the events that later inspired the coining of the very word ‘genocide’ by Raphael Lemkin.
From the history lecture-like beginnings that cover the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of a Turkish Republic whose rabid nationalism saw them enter the First World War on the sides of the Germans, to the searing pain of an old man reclaiming long-buried memories of being in the middle of a human catastrophe, Tommo Fowler’s production makes no attempt to sugarcoat this particularly bitter pill. The details of the deportations of hundreds of thousands of Armenians and the desert concentration camps to which they were forced to walk are laid out before us, their story told compassionately but clear-sightedly.
It’s not a finished story either – the relentless atrocities suffered by this Armenian Christian minority are perpetrated still on their memory as the latter part of the play shows us. The naming of what happened as a genocide is a crime in Turkey today, and the list of countries who do not recognise the genocide demonstrates the pernicious political realities of nations protecting their strategic interests – the UK, the USA, Israel… That it is similar religious minorities who are suffering now at the hands of IS only adds to the sense of outrage that is ignited during the more incendiary moments here.
Perhaps inevitably, there are moments where the intensity drops. Recounting a child’s-eye view in a child’s voice doesn’t always work and a few more moments of wry humour (like who gets to play Barack Obama…) might counter the unremitting air. But Phil Lindley’s design, incorporating Rob Mills’ beautiful video work, works well at allowing the committed company of seven to pay quiet but focused tribute. Tom Marshall is heart-breaking whether oppressor or oppressed, Kate Binchy and Tamar Karabetyan combine to extraordinary effect in a late scene and I also enjoyed Bevan Celestine’s open-hearted directness. Stirring stuff.