Pros: A worthy exploration of a monumental yet marginalised historical event.
Cons: This production was more demonstrative lecture than play.
The Finborough is consistently one of my favourite fringe theatres in London. The lovely venue never fails to disappoint, to the extent that I’ve stopped reading up on productions in advance, preferring to be surprised by the promise of a new and exciting work at the intimate and versatile black box space. I was most recently surprised by the current production of I Wish to Die Singing, an exploration of the Armenian Genocide in 1915, written by the Finborough’s artistic director, Neil McPherson.
According to reports from the period, over one million Armenians living in Turkey were massacred by order of the government, with thousands more injured, displaced, or forcibly converted to Islam. The script borrows from first-hand accounts of the atrocious events, creating a documentary style experience in the vein of The Laramie Project. The cast is led by Jilly Bond, who takes the role of an interactive narrator, walking us through the experiences of several Armenian children (Bevan Celestine, Siu-see Hung, Tamar Karabetyan), as well as a revolving ensemble featuring missionaries, Turkish and foreign officials, and Armenian survivors (Kate Binchy, Tom Marshall, Simon Yadoo).
The script’s strong suit is its base in history and the exploration of the disturbingly weak response to the genocide – to this day neither the United Kingdom, nor the United States recognize the mass killings as a genocide. The point is made; however it seemed it must be made at the expense of a clear story. Shifts in character and time period were unclear and confusing, making it difficult to bond with characters, eliciting a much more intellectual experience than emotional. I found this disappointing, since there was such room and spread in these experiences for the effects of the play to be not only outrageous, but also truly moving.
The final act of the 90-minute performance (no interval, be warned!) is by far the most interesting, with the cast providing statistics and developments on the international relationship with the genocide of the Armenians. A particularly interesting moment is the narrator’s argument with a telecast with the current Turkish government, using a translation of a statement actually published on the website of the Turkish Republic, refusing to accept any responsibility for the events. While I did find the play lacking in an emotional element despite its capacity to move, there’s no doubt it made a strong argument.
The production is a true example of activist theatre, calling attention to a supremely marginalised historical event and population, demanding justice and recognition for the suffering of a million men, women, and children. It uses history and current events to provide an artistic commentary on a historically unjust situation, educating and challenging its audience along the way.
I have to say that I Wish to Die Singing has not been my stylistic favourite in the long string of politically charged productions I have enjoyed at the Finborough. The script, design, and stage direction all seemed lacking in comparison to previous experiences I’ve had at the west London venue, but still the play’s value is undeniable.
I’ll end, like the production, with a link to the change.org petition for the UK to recognise the Armenian Genocide: https://www.change.org/p/david-cameron-mp-british-recognition-of-the-armenian-and-assyrian-genocide
Director: Tommo Fowler
Author: Neil McPherson
Booking Until: 16 May
Box Office: 0844 847 1652
Booking Link: http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2015/i-wish-to-die-singing.php