Neil McPherson

Neil McPherson: Bringing Armenian Genocide to the British Stage

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LONDON — Neil McPherson (born in London, 1969) is British artistic director and playwright. Between 1991 and 1994, he trained as an actor at the Central School of Speech and Drama and was a member of the National Youth Theatre for eight years. McPherson was artistic director of the New End Theatre, Hampstead, from 1996 to 1997, and has been the artistic director of the Finborough Theatre, London, since January 1999. He has commissioned many productions for the Finborough Theatre including most of the theatre’s acclaimed series of rediscoveries (including “Accolade,” “Mixed Marriage” and “Cornelius”).

His award-winning first play, “I Wish to Die Singing – Voices From The Armenian Genocide,” was presented at the Finborough Theatre in 2015, and an excerpt was also performed concurrently in Los Angeles. His second play, “It Is Easy To Be Dead,” sold out at the Finborough Theatre, and subsequently transferred to the West End where it was nominated for an Olivier Award, and toured Scotland. The scripts of both plays are published by Oberon Books.

McPherson received Best Artistic Director – Fringe Report Awards (2009), The Writers Guild Award for The Encouragement of New Writing (2010), Best Artistic Director – Off West End Awards (2011), Off West End Awards (2012), the Critics’ Circle Special Award for Services to Theatre (2019).

Neil, we became friends on Facebook after your award-winning first play, “I Wish to Die Singing – Voices From The Armenian Genocide,” was presented at the Finborough Theatre in 2015. We, Armenians, are sensitive to those non-Armenians, who share our pain and concerns. And many people would have a logical question: why did you pick this topic?

As far as I remember, the first time I ever heard about the Genocide was when I was 18 and read Tim Cross’ The Lost Voices of World War One, which included the work of three leading Armenian poets, all deported from Constantinople on April 24, 1915.

Seventeen years later, as artistic director at the Finborough Theatre in London, I was programming the theatre for the 2005 season. As usual, I researched the anniversaries that fell in that year as they can sometimes be a useful marketing hook for a production. When I learned that 2005 was the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, I decided to search for a play that we could produce to commemorate it. All of the plays I could find were by Armenian-Americans. Most were very short, and focused on the experience of the Armenian diaspora in the United States. They all assumed that their audiences already possessed a good working knowledge of the Genocide.

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But I quickly learnt that the Armenian Genocide was very far from common knowledge. Most people I spoke to had never heard of it. A very few had, but only vaguely, and then solely in relation to the Holocaust, rather than as an event in its own right.

In the end, if I wasn’t able to find a play that would do that, then I vowed to try and create one myself.

The genocide is continuing – for example the war between Armenia and Turkey-supported Azerbaijan in 2020 and current blockade of Artsakh. Of course, we are thankful to professionals like you, but do you believe that artists are still able to make some positive changes with just their art?

Of course, theatre can’t change the world, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try. As an example, in December, the Finborough Theatre became the very first foreign theatre to visit Kyiv since the Russian invasion in February with performances of a one-woman show by a Ukrainian playwright. The play itself was hugely acclaimed, but perhaps more than the play itself, was the fact that the actress had travelled all the way from the safety of the UK into an active war zone to share with people her work and her art. The gesture of support and solidarity — coupled with the art — became something deeply meaningful.

I assume you get acquainted with Armenian literature a little, as the title of your play, “I Wish to Die Singing,” is taken from poet Siamanto, who died during the Genocide. Generally, what sources did you use while writing the play?

Obviously as a non-Armenian, I researched exhaustively for the play. The bibliography in the published text fills three plays. I used the work of Peter Balakian extensively, both his own writings (June-Tree: New and Selected Poems; Black Dog of Fate; The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response) and translations (Bloody News from My Friend by Siamanto; Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian). I used also the usual primary sources like Henry Morgenthau and contemporary reports; the memoir by Fethiye Çetin, a Turkish author who discovered that her grandmother was — unbeknownst to her — a survivor of the Armenian Genocide who had been forcibly converted to Islam; and, of course, as much Armenian poetry as I could fit into the play.

Tamar Karabekian in “I Wish to Die Singing”

How did the audience and critics respond?

We had a very successful run with many great reviews and sell-out performances. Some of the press quotes we received included:

“A searing account of the Armenian genocide… it movingly achieves what it sets out to do” (Michael Billington, The Guardian).

“Simple, moving and very powerful…. You leave the theatre with a soul full of anger” (Aleks Sierz, The Stage).

“90 minutes of continuously compelling theatre” (Howard Loxton, British Theatre Guide).

The reaction of the Armenian community was overwhelming, including parents bringing their children, and even people who travelled especially to the theatre from as far afield as Beirut and Yerevan to see it.

There were cases that during such performances some spectators threw scissors or other sharp objects on the stage. I hope your performances passed without such incidents.

We did receive some death threats when we did the 2005 production. When the full production opened in 2015, on the exact anniversary of the start of the Genocide — 24th of April — we were very fortunate as the denialist lobby seemed to be careful to keep their heads down around the time of the centenary. We had a few minor incidents including a woman who tried to distribute leaflets to the audience denying the Genocide, and serious abuse on Twitter, but nothing too bad. Interestingly, the angriest letter of complaint we received was not from Turkish sources, but from a British couple outraged that Israel was criticised for not formally recognising the Genocide.

Some years ago, I have translated one of best pieces of documentary theatre, “Seven.” Do you think that in the future documentary dramas will have more place in theater?

Yes indeed, I think there will always be a place for documentary theatre. There are some subjects where the themes are so vast that the truth speaks better than fiction.

Have you ever visited Armenia?

Sadly, I have not yet done so. Running a theatre and occasionally writing plays means that I rarely have any time to visit anywhere. But one day definitely!

 

 

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