Brilliant ... and Baffling!

Bill Hagerty reviews two very different plays at the Finborough Theatre

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I Wish to Die Singing at the Finborough Theatre

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I Wish to Die Singing: Voices From the Armenian Genocide

On April 24, the day I saw this arresting production, world leaders and a brace of British royals were at a ceremony in Turkey to mark the centenary of the failed land assault on the Gallipoli Peninsular in World War 1. The engagement, that cost the lives of thousands of Australians, New Zealanders, French and British as well as more than 100,000 troops of the Ottoman Empire, actually began minutes after midnight on 25 April, now the date of the annual Anzac Day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand.

So why was the anniversary commemoration moved forward one day?

Because, explains I Wish to Die Singing, the Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge that the savage events that followed the 24 April rounding up and imprisonment of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople and elsewhere constituted genocide.

By bringing forward the Gallipoli ceremony by a day the authorities hoped to relegate the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Armenians even further into the sidelines of history.

The Turks reckoned without Finborough artistic director Neil McPherson, who wrote and collated this piece, and events organised not just by today’s Armenian activists but by many protestors worldwide determined to obtain full recognition of one of the 20th Century’s most horrifying examples of man’s inhumanity to man.

The once vast and religion-tolerant Ottoman Empire had crumbled to become almost entirely Muslim and overwhelmingly a Turkish state when the country’s leaders decided to compensate for lost territories by “Turkifying” the Christian territory to the east. The method to achieve this was quite simply, reported the Swedish ambassador of the time, the annihilation of the Armenian nation.

McPherson’s text is compiled from some of the recorded and documented eye-witness accounts of the slaughter as well as a selection of poetry and music. A talented cast of seven delivers the message with sledgehammer effect. The occasional line that borders on amusing is seized upon extravagantly by the audience, like water bringing comfort to parched travellers in a desert. But there was no humour and no comfort for the Armenian men, women and children who died, often horribly, during the persecution.

Adolf Hitler was a keen student of what had happened in Turkey as his eyes turned towards Poland and the beginning of the Holocaust. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" he asked.

McPherson’s powerful drama-documentary shows that much of the world still does not speak of the magnitude of what happened. 23 countries and 43 U.S. states have adopted resolutions acknowledging the Armenian Genocide, but President Obama, despite twice having promised to recognise it as a bona fide historic event, has abstained from using the word.

Pope Francis described what happened a century ago as the “senseless” murder of innocent victims and the “first genocide of the Twentieth Century”, promoting diplomatic outrage in Turkey. The European Union Parliament has urged Turkey to recognise the genocide and the German Bundestag overwhelmingly adopted a resolution recognising it. Others still refuse to use the word – and that includes the United Kingdom.

Go see I Wish to Die Singing – the title is taken from work by the Armenian poet known as Siamanto, tortured and murdered in 1915 – and make up your own mind. The cast, made up of Jilly Bond, Tamar Karabetyan, Siu-see Hung, Bevan Celestine, Simon Yadoo, Tom Marshall and Kate Binchy, will send you into the spring evening with a sad song of compassion in your heart.

I Wish to Die Singing plays until May 16, excluding May 3, 4. and 5. For tickets, call the box office on 0844 847 1652 or book online.

A New Play for the General Election

Perhaps artistic director Phil McPherson was too busy with I Wish to Die Singing to pay much attention to this allegedly topical piece written and directed by Chris New and devised by him and a cast of four. Whatever the reason for its inadequacy, the debut performance of this mishmash, set on the eve of the imminent election, seemed as unprepared as the public appearances of many of those protagonists involved in the real-life tussle for power.

The plot, such as it is, involves Chancellor George Osborne being kidnapped, bound and assaulted in a dungeon by an assailant known variously as Hero, Daniel and Jesus. Two colleagues of Hero, or maybe Daniel, or possibly Jesus, arrive: Maggie, who shrieks a lot, and Richard, who routinely informs her that she has only a few minutes remaining before they leave.

He’s right. What is billed as a performance lasting an hour and ten minutes was over in 50 minutes on opening night, further baffling an already bewildered audience. My best advice on this occasion is, as they say, to vote with your feet.

A New Play for the General Election plays on 28 April and 3, 4, 5 and 7 May.

For tickets, call the box office on 0844 847 1652 or book online.