This isn’t a sponsored post.
BrumHour saw the press night of A Museum in Baghdad at arrangement with The RSC.
By Eleanor Lawson twitter.com/elle_lawson
A Museum in Baghdad at
The RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon
Written by Hannah Khalil, directed by Erica Whyman
Two women, eighty years apart, both try to reopen the same museum. Both believe that history is what unites a nation and its people. Both try to keep the violence darting around the periphery at bay. This is their story.
In 1926, British archaeologist Gertrude Bell, played by Emma Fielding, is founding a museum in Baghdad, having played a pivotal role in the creation of Iraq as a nation. She’s optimistic and determined to see her vision play out: Iraq’s beautiful and colourful history on display for its citizens to see. The major conflict comes in the form of Professor Leonard Woolley (David Birrell), who believes these artifacts are at risk of destruction in Iraq and should be displayed at the British Museum.
In 2006, Ghalia Hussein, played by Rendah Heywood, is attempting to reopen the museum that was looted during the invasion of Iraq. Hussein is on a moral mission, frequently distracted from her work to report looted artefacts on eBay and to dote on photos of her grandson in London. Heated arguments break out repeatedly over the artefacts: her staff want them on display for the people of Iraq, after all, what is the point in demonstrating history just to lock it away in the vaults? Ghalia, however, is terrified of their destruction and wants to ensure they survive for future generations.
Hannah Khalil has crafted a gorgeously intriguing play about the ethical considerations of history. Is the survival of these remnants of history enough if they are hidden away from the world? Bell and Hussein’s team believe history is dead if it is hidden away from the public, unable to tell its stories and show people their heritage. If history is to mean something then surely people must see and learn from it. But it’s impossible for the audience not to remember the last twenty years of Iraq, and to sympathise with Ghalia for trying to prevent her country’s history from disappearing, even if it is under lock and key.
Khalil and director Erica Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director at The RSC, show us exactly how history is a narrative created by the powerful, often created for the white, the rich and the British. A tribe of women who prosper and innovate are slaughtered by jealous men: British archaeologists believe they were culpable in their own sacrifice. History is written by those with power. Women are silenced and written over. A statue of an Iraqi goddess is shipped to the British museum, raising the question, who is Iraq’s history for? The utopia of a democratic history that defines national identity is broken – it’s simply playthings for the highest bidder.
The question that haunts us throughout the play is whether any of this even matters when people are dying? The play lulls you into a seductive world of ancient goddesses and gleaming civilisations, into a world where history is paramount, it’s who we are and how we learn about who we are. But there’s a moment where this shatters and you feel so ashamed for investing in objects of gold and marble when war rages outside and civilians are starving to death. It’s a visceral punch to the gut.
If you expected a traditional three-act play for a biographical subject, Khalil and Whyman completely upend your expectations. Both time-periods mingle on the stage, Bell and Hussein often sat together at the same table or talking in unison – time has passed but the challenges to the museum haven’t. It’s a fluid play in which time bends: moments are repeated, changed, conjured from fantasy or memory. A coin toss goes two different ways. It’s not a play you will completely understand, but that’s far more interesting than having all of the answers given to you.
A Museum in Baghdad is playing at The Swan Theatre, in Stratford-upon-Avon until 21st March 2020, before transferring to the Kiln Theatre in London. Book tickets here: rsc.org.uk/a-museum-in-baghdad
This isn’t a sponsored post.
Eleanor Lawson presents and produces Interval Theatre Tuesdays at 3pm on Brum Radio.