Saturday, 25 April 2015

Review Wish To Die Singing - Voices From The Armenian Genocide

I Wish To Die Singing - Voices From The Armenian Genocide
by Neil McPherson 

Breaking The Eggs

The slaughter of up to one and a half million Armenians in Easter 1915 within the rapidly-diminishing  Ottoman Empire hit the headlines at the time worldwide. One hundred years later Neil McPherson’s purposeful and necessarily partisan documentary drama piece, I Wish To Die Singing, charts the arrests; torture; mass killings; looting; rapes; slavery; forced conversions; death marches; desert concentration camps and an uncertain world response which remains to this day

Narrator (Jilly Bond) introduces an intense 90-minutes without interval, the spine of which are the lives of three different Armenians, survivors, part of an ancient Christian trading merchant minority in a Muslim country.

Music and dance accompany as a girl on the cusp of womanhood  (Tamar Karabetyan) steps forward to speak of relatives in America, along with  the painted Easter egg customs: “Whoever breaks the other person’s eggs wins”.

The joyful little girl (Siu-see Hung) from a wealthy merchant family revels in her dress from Paris and the country boy (Bevan Celestine) expects one day to inherit the family farm. 

Directed by Tommo Fowler, the seven-strong ethnically-mixed, colour blind cast, also including Simon Yadoo and Kate Binchy, give the stories a universal appeal, reinforced by sparsely-scattered references to other historical slaughters. 

The actors play multiple roles feeding in information to the audience from designer Phil Lindley’s  plain rough-hewn gray stage.  Backdrop projections (lighting and video: Rob Mills) include the Anatolian hills, sentences in the Armenian language unravelling as the characters speak, graphics, quotes, the landscapes of tragedy,  as well as  photos of perpetrators and victims. 

Theatrically, the verbatim testimony of the victims are the strongest, most affecting part of the play. 

The old man who swears not to “colour” events  (an affecting performance by Tom Marshall) relates facts which have the power of searing poetry. A sudden wail of the wounded released into the air after their assailants leave at sunset. The rows of heads on one side, bodies on the other with the slits in the thighs into which the hands were neatly inserted “like pockets”. 

As the world map and alliances shift yet again, this play positions itself as part of a centenary push to have the slaughter put into the legal category of genocide, a word created specifically referring to the mass killings of Armenians. Reminding TLT and her companion of a sentence in  Ulysses by James Joyce (a book directly linked with Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire): “I fear those big words ... which make us so unhappy”. 

The word genocide was coined at a particular juncture in history during World War II with its alliances and emnities. Many present-day countries did not even exist.  The play’s narrative strand gives a partial rundown of why most scholars accept the events as genocide. However, as a subject of international law,  politically and nationally, it remains a divided issue.

I Wish To Die Singing tackles a 100 year old issue still very much the currency of our global times. A TLT amber light.

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