Finborough Theatre, London
It must be an irony lost on few immediately involved that along with the panoply of remembrances around the Gallipoli centenary at the weekend, April 24, 2015 also marked the `anniversary’ of the slaughter of innocents that has come to be known as the Armenian genocide.
At least, come to be known by some. The UK, shamefully, along with Turkey, sadly Israel and even President Obama have refused to recognise the term despite his promise to do so on the campaign trail to become President. Such is the sensitivity of the issue, when nation states and even the Pope declare their support for the term genocide, Turkey promptly threatens to cut off relations and withdraws its ambassador. Because of strategic, political and economic ties, Turkey it seems can still exert influence when it comes to refusing to acknowledge the estimated 1.5million Armenians who were killed by the Ottoman Turks between 1915-1918 as a genocide, an ethnic cleansing.
To the Finborough’s eternal credit, Neil McPherson, its enlightened artistic director has penned this documentary drama as part of his Great War 100 series, to commemorate these events, lest we forget or were simply ignorant – as in the case of this viewer – as to its scale.
Based on eye witness accounts, in a century not short on horror or mass slaughter, these voices from the Armenian genocide in I Wish to Die Singing cannot but shock and overwhelm. The sheer depth of brutality and cruelty – physical atrocity, forced marches, food and water deprivation – almost defy description except here they are described and with a quiet understatement (not least by actor Tom Marshall) that makes them all the more appalling.
It amounts to a desperate story of loss of culture, identity, displacement and secrecy and is told by director Tommo Fowler with admirable restraint – though the gruesome details relayed by McPherson through the stories of three young people – a 7yr old, an 11yr old and 13 year old and their accounts of the murders, rapes, mutilations and 1000 day march into the desert where, at the end, the majority were put to death remain utterly stomach-churning.
Pictures, songs, poems provide extra background to the related facts of families torn apart and the apparent impunity with which the Muslim Turks suddenly turned on their Christian counterparts in response to a Jihad being declared and the Armenians being regarded as enemies of the state.
McPherson’s account certainly points to religious intolerance but also hints at its political antecedents in the Turko-Russian offensive, the Great War and the loss of the Ottaman empire. Certainly, as I Wish to Die Singing makes clear, the Armenians came to be seen by 1915 as less than human.
In an interesting postscript bringing the history up to the present, McPherson’s narrator, the Turkish lawyer and civil rights activist Fethiye Cetin, (impressively played by Jilly Bond) notes the number of German Nazis present in the Ottoman government at the time, decisively connecting the Armenian massacre as a horrific dress rehearsal to the later Holocaust. Even today the persecution continues, she points out, with Isis’ victimization of the Yazidis.
On a more personal note, she also discovers, late in the day via her grandmother that she too is of Armenian descent. The letter read out at the beginning by the 11 yr old to the father who had already escaped to the US is revealed many decades later, hidden away inside the belongings of a recently deceased relative. A family and its history is reconnected.
Like survivors from other wars and genocides, stories of nightmare times had been locked away, never spoken of until one day, suddenly, someone had turned the key. And all is revealed. Cetin’s forebears as so many others who could save themselves, fled to the US, South America and elsewhere. The Armenian diaspora had begun…
For not the first time, Finborough’s Neil McPherson is leading the way with this much belated but timely homage to an almost forgotten people. Painful stuff.
I Wish to Die Singing is at the Finborough Theatre, to May 16
First published in Londongrip, April 2015