Royal Shakespeare Company
A Museum in Baghdad was ten years in the making. Author Hannah Kalil began by writing a play about Gertrude Bell, an archaeologist who became the first custodian of the museum in Baghdad which opened in 1926. She then developed her play after she realised that there were parallels between this event in 1926 and the reopening of the Museum in 2006.
It is a complex and fascinating play drawing on both Tom Stoppard and Caryl Churchill in its techniques and looking at historical repetition compulsion as well as tensions between artefacts and politics, the influences of the past, clashes between cultures, the role of women and attitudes to history.
Until they realised that the two time periods are interwoven some audience members were confused about what is going on. It’s pretty straightforward, though, once you realise that Gertrude (1926) is paralleled by Ghalia Hussein (2006), that they each have their staff but that Abu Zaman as the local caretaker appears in both time periods, tying the two together through a consistent Iraqi presence.
The play is, perhaps, a touch longer than it needs to be. It’s sometimes a bit attenuated, sometimes a bit portentous, but Erica Whyman’s direction is absolutely superb. Her treatment of the interweaving of the two time periods is brilliant. A la Churchill there is a chorus, but the words of the chorus are split up and thrown around by all those on stage. There are brilliantly handled freezes and mime sequences. There are several moments when both Bell and Hussein say the same lines. There is real depth of characterisation. Each character has his or her own reasons for being involved in archaeology and museums.
The performances are outstanding. Emma Fielding gives one of the performances of the decade as Gertrude Bell – she radiates charisma in a very gentle way with exquisite attention to minute detail. Her assistant Salim is wonderfully played by Zed Josef; his movement and vocal technique is impeccable. Rasoul Saghir is also outstanding as Abu Zaman. He is on stage when the audience enters, fulfilling his role as caretaker in ways more than literal.
There are some wonderful moments involving metaphors and symbols. Several times Abu Zaman withdraws something from his pocket which is preceded by a handful of grains of sand (sands of time, no doubt, as well as of desert) which fall to the ground. There is debate in both time periods about the museum’s most treasured possession, a goddess and a headdress, and these become highly charged symbolic objects where the audience is invited to create their own meanings. A display cabinet is commissioned in each time period and we are invited, by shadow play and fog, to imagine what is in it. Towards the end other artefacts appear against the backdrop which are hard to realise are only projections, so that even the technical word, projection, accrues meanings.
Many found the ending when Gertrude died very moving. I thought the symbolism and myth making were a wee bit obvious but there is no doubting the power of the imagery. This is a very interesting and thought provoking play, but I am not convinced that I have ever seen better direction.
It should be seen.