Museum in Baghdad has RSC premiere

Published: 6 October 2019
Reporter: Steve Orme

Hannah Khalil’s play A Museum in Baghdad, which is to have its première at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, tells the stories of two women 80 years apart trying to preserve Iraq's treasures in unstable times.

Khalil said, “trying to redress the balance of the way Arabs are portrayed on stage and screen is one of the reasons I started writing in the first place.

“I’ve always considered representations of Arabs and Muslims to be completely stereotypical and narrow, especially on film and TV, and I’m so sad that it’s not getting better, so I want to try to do my own little thing about that in my writing.

“Arab women are all too often overlooked in life and in history but they’ve played a key role. If Arab men are stereotyped, Arab women are doubly so and that stereotype of the meek, subservient veiled lady isn’t one I recognise.”

She added, “one of the characters in A Museum in Baghdad is inspired by a real-life Iraqi female archaeologist who worked to rebuild the museum after the looting; a powerhouse of a woman, determined and strong. This is much more representative of the Arab women in my life.”

A Museum in Baghdad is set partly in 1926 when the nation of Iraq is in its infancy and British archaeologist Gertrude Bell is founding a museum in Baghdad. It is also set in 2006 when Ghalia Hussein is attempting to reopen the museum despite the looting during the war.

Emma Fielding plays English archaeologist and diplomat Gertrude Bell while Rendah Heywood makes her RSC debut in the role of Iraqi archaeologist Ghalia Hussein.

The cast also includes Sarah Agha, David Birrell (Leonard Woolley), Houda Echouafni (Layla), Ali Gadema (kidnapper), Zed Josef (Salim), Nadi Kemp-Sayfi (Nasiya), Debbie Korley (Sam York), Richard Pryal, Zara Ramm, Riad Richie (Mohammed) and Rasoul Saghir (Abu Zaman).

RSC deputy artistic director Erica Whyman directs. Designer is Tom Piper, Charles Balfour is lighting designer, music is by Oguz Kaplangi and movement by Tanushka Marah. David Greig and Pippa Hill are dramaturgs and video is by Nina Dunn.

Co-commissioned by the RSC and the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, A Museum in Baghdad runs in the Swan Theatre, Stratford from Friday 11 October until Saturday 25 January 2020. Press night will be Tuesday 22 October.