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If the title leaves you mystified, think Armenia. This new work forms part of France’s official Year of Armenia, which winds up this July. And although it springs from questions surrounding the 20th-century genocide, it probes broader ideas of identity – national, personal – that are high on today’s political agenda.
Pascal Tokatlian was raised in France of Italian and Armenian stock, but started unravelling strands of family history only as a young adult. His monologue interweaves direct and recounted experience with excerpts from the writings of Aram Andonian, one of the few intellectuals to survive deportation to concentration camps in Syria and Mesopotamia between 1915 and 1919. Andonian provides gripping testimony – of tents as far as the eye could see, dead bodies used as pillows by the dying, inmates holding out shoes to scoop up servings of soup.
The result is the opposite of polemic, even though the bare set is framed with blackboards that starkly record the events leading to the death of an estimated 1.5m victims. Tokatlian grounds his piece in intimacy, piecing together family anecdotes to assemble dispersed clues. He even integrates home video of a bewitching (Italian) granny, using as catalyst the lonely music of Gaguik Mouradian’s solo kamantcha, played with moving restraint.
Trying to convey the soul of a dispersed people is hugely ambitious: history, however harrowing, can prove dry in theatrical terms. Here the start proved too intense and breathless, leaving few silences for shared reflection. But Tokatlian is an engaging performer who grows more assured as he allows humour and warmth into his writing: shared banter with Mouradian about traditional home cooking, indefinable sadness filtered through memories of a soggy camping holiday. His recital of the final segment of Andonian’s memoirs is compelling: “ ‘How long do we have to march?’ ‘Until your bodies can’t take any more.’ ”
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