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REVIEW: RSC's A Museum in Baghdad

Emma Fielding as Gertrude Bell in A Museum in Baghdad. Photo: Ellie Kurttz
Emma Fielding as Gertrude Bell in A Museum in Baghdad. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

A Museum in Baghdad, Swan Theatre, until 25th January 2020

A museum isn’t the sexiest place to set a drama. Unless you’ve got mummies coming to life (hello The Mummy), the corridors stalked by a crazy curator (hello House of Wax) or dinosaurs on the loose (hello Night at the Museum) a museum is probably only second to a mortuary as the deadliest of dull settings.

Hannah Kahlil reveals in the programme notes that she was initially inspired to tell the story of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) having spotted her included in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery on Victorian women explorers. Bell is indeed an amazing and overlooked figure: she travelled widely in the Middle East spoke various dialects in Arabic and Persian and was responsible for drawing the lines of what became modern Iraq.

Khalil later came across the work of Dr Lamia Al-Gailani, a renowned Iraqi archaeologist who in 2006 was hoping to restore the Museum of Iraq in Baghdad after looting following the US-led invasion in 2003 – the same museum Bell had originally set up in 1926.

Not unreasonably Khalil, who has had eight or so other plays performed on stage and radio, decided to interweave the two women’s stories and use a dual time frame in A Museum in Baghdad. As she points out “the museum is a metaphor for colonialism in the Middle East and further”.

In many ways the play is a commendable effort to put Middle East politics on the table in a non-bamboozling way. We understand how the ravishes of war and colonialist meddling left Iraq with gaping wounds that have yawned ever wider in the 80 years of the play’s sweep. The story is told through the lives of the women and their staff and associates. Emma Fielding as Bell and Rendah Heywood as Ghalia Hussein (based on Al-Gailani) are both fine actors and work their socks off, but alas can’t save this from being an overly worthy and clumsy telling of Iraq’s story.

Directed by Erica Whyman, it is at its best when it goes a bit trippy – playing with time and myth. At one point an amazing gold crown is handed in and assistant archeologist Layla (very ably played by Houda Echouafni) is drawn to try it on – in an intense scene she seems to channel a goddess of ancient times. Arabic chants, switches of time, choreographed moves and telling of old myths serve to lend a touch of magic realism to the otherwise dullish goings on in the everyday life of the museum (we watch the actors do a lot of cataloguing and shuffling of boxes).

Impassioned speeches miss profundity and poetry, the drama lacks any tension or humour and the symbolism is labored – especially the appearance of Sam York, an American soldier played by Debbie Korley as if she’d stumbled in from The Colour Purple. Presumably her character is meant to be full of meaning (manipulated working class soldiers used as pawns?) but her intrusion is entirely incongruous.

A Museum in Baghdad proffers edification but in reality is an empty vessel that not even a rampaging T-Rex could enliven.

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