Friday, 14 June 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: The Weight Of Repopulating A Nation - Toxteth TV Studios, Liverpool.

24th April is commemorated by Armenians around the world as Genocide Remembrance Day. Never officially declared a genocide, The Weight Of Repopulating A Nation is a crusade by half Armenian half British playwright Leianna Boodaghian-Owen to discover her Christian ancestors and to share their story of the systematic extermination of Armenians by the Ottomans taking a starting point of 24th April 1915. I have no need of referring to my notes for this date. Boodaghian-Owen repeated the date throughout her stunning autobiographical performance. The piece is deeply moving and raises uncomfortable questions that are both historical and serve as a warning.

Chairs set out in wide unbroken rows faced a simple set at ground level creating a slightly crowded feeling. Immediately visually appealing, the audience took in a spotlighted microphone stand and a cluttered table with simple chair. Eyes were drawn to the floor set out with a row of assorted papers, envelopes and objects that we discover represent pieces of evidence. Each piece was later held up and referred to as the atrocities unfolded. A striking young woman, dressed all in black, Boodaghian-Owen both entertains and educates, immediately gaining the audience’s trust with her presence and forthright attitude as she told us that no-one had heard of the Armenians before the Kardashians. She is a woman on a mission although at times she also appeared vulnerable and physically small.

A huge white backcloth first surprises with an opening grainy black and white image then shocks as the brain processed a row of naked women, heads drooped, crucified.

Emma Bramley, Artistic Director of All Things Considered Theatre Company knows how to tell a story with an audience in mind. The Bramley/Boodaghian-Owen partnership has brought a jumble of historical facts, family interviews and Armenian community aural history together to produce a well-researched coherent performance that holds the audience spellbound from start to finish. Focussing on the 1915 death marches into the Syrian desert and its aftermath it was at times hard to listen to. There is a particularly harrowing account of the murder and disposal of a thousand orphaned children. We learn that their deaths were passed off as natural causes. Under the careful direction of Bramley, Boodaghian-Owen offsets this by interspersing contemporary, often humorous, anecdotes from her own family as she glides easily between directly addressing the audience as herself, readings and taking on the roles of past Armenian women. Simple headscarves served well as costume adaptations as with each change she assumed a believable character while recounting experiences of a young woman, older woman, a child. The performance was enhanced by the use of mixed media; recorded voices, giant images, archive film footage. Acknowledged by some as the forerunner of the Holocaust, the screen displayed archive images and quotations throughout,

“After all, who remembers today the extermination of the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler 22 August 1939

Boodaghian-Owen feels the weight of her past and a sense of responsibility to the 1.5 million who were killed, a figure still disputed by the Turkish people. It is said that every Armenian family has a genocide story and she not only did justice to her own but continues in the great tradition of storytelling. Using voice-over, she vigorously questions her Armenian father, ‘Why don’t I speak Armenian?’. The answer is heart-breaking, he wanted her to fit in. He hoped that she would ask questions later, he added. This may be a one-woman performance but as the saying goes, ‘It takes a village’, and surrounded by family and friends old and new the hour-long story is left with the voice of a child proudly exclaiming, ‘I’m Armenian’. It is Boodaghian-Owen’s daughter. Her name is Hope.

Reviewer - Barbara Sherlock
on - 13/6/19

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