Writer: Hannah Khalil
Director: Erica Whyman
Reviewer: Daljinder Johal
“History is written by the victors” but as many working in heritage would know, doing so is hardly easy and who has the right to present history, is increasingly being debated. A Museum in Baghdad carefully examines the complexity of colonialism through the figure of Gertrude Bell (Emma Fielding) and her work in Iraq.
Bell’s death by sleeping pills, while mysterious, is well-known to those familiar with her life and the production cleverly teases out the factual details of her story to explore the struggles of this intelligent and independent British woman who found a home in 1926 Iraq, having helped found the nation as part of the British Mandate.
Erica Whyman’s production attempts to carefully balance Bell’s ‘Sisphean’ task of opening the Baghdad Museum of Antiquities according to the political strategies of King Faisal I alongside 2006’s Ghalia Hussain (Rendah Heywood). Her team reopens the institution after the invasion and looting. While transitions between the two timelines are smooth, moments of the two actresses syncing lines in their lectures on preserving the past for the sake of the future are a little too heavy-handed. Similarly, the figure of Abu Zaman (Rasoul Saghir), a ghostly figure “haunting” the corridors, feels a little superfluous.
In fact, the first half of the play struggles to balance its many ideas despite the 10 years Hannah Khalil took to write this production. In snippets of their everyday lives, both women grapple with issues of identity such as sexism or racism while trying to find their home in the process of crafting a collective identity for another country and, for Hussain, try to become part of it after fleeing to England for sanctuary.
Instead, the moments that truly shine are darker and feel more stripped back. Lighting designer Charles Balfour bathes the stage in an eerie blue, giving the museum shelving and gold display case a haunting quality. Turn by turn, the cast recounts myths as Arabic and English interweave to persuade us of the sophistication of Iraq in areas of accountancy or language.
The stronger threat of danger and loss through video projections provides a more effective backdrop for the play’s critique of Western imperialistic violence against women and how casually gatekeepers of history such as Bell’s friendly antagonist, Professor Leonard Woolley (David Birrell), disregard this for their own romantic notions of an exotic, savage East and authoritative, sensible Britain.
Forgettable Woolley is, unfortunately, an unlikeable caricature of Western arrogance. Instead, it’s Hussein’s colleague, Layla Hassan (Houda Echouafni) who provides the most thought-provoking and convincing story. A seemingly uncaring woman hardened by years of constant danger, she switches from being bewitched by a mysterious crown, shyly self-conscious with smitten curator, Mohammed Abdullah (Riad Richie) to frustration with the simple American soldier, Sam York (Debbie Korley) despite relating over their shared experiences as financially-disadvantaged women of colour. As interesting as it is to discover the oft-ignored history of women such as Gertrude Bell, unfortunately, there are still many stories begging out to be told today.
Runs until: 25 January 2020 Image: Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC