A Museum in Baghdad

Hannah Khalil
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
to

Gertrude Bell (Emma Fielding), Salim (Zed Josef) and from a later time zone Layla (Houda Echouafni) Credit: Ellie Kurttz, RSC
Prof. Leonard Woolley (David Birrell) Credit: Ellie Kurttz, RSC
Ghalia Hussein (Rendah Heywood) with the golden crown Credit: Ellie Kurttz, RSC

Sixty years apart, two women arrive from England to create an institution that would help define a country, the formidable Gertrude Bell in 1926 and her successor Ghalia Hussein in 2006.

Iraq did not exist before 1920. What did the land have in common? asks Emma Fielding as Bell. “Not language, not tradition, but the past… one of the world’s first administrations.”

It’s through that, with a collection of Assyrian, Babylonian and Arabic artefacts, that she wishes to bequeath a historical record—a past that will offer untold futures. And two generations later, after the destruction and looting of the war against Saddam, her fellow archaeologist returns from London exile to try to restore that ambition.

The drama constantly intercuts between the two women, Rendah Heywood as Ghalia often speaking lines simultaneously with her predecessor, as they articulate the same questions: To whom do the treasures belong? How to reconcile access with security?

Those undertaking digs need an incentive, says visiting Professor Woolley, who wins for the British Museum a prized statue of a goddess on the toss of a coin.

He argues also that precious objects will be best cared for out of the country, and beyond events in the museum there are allusions to violence continuing outside through all ages, current random murders and the unearthing of an ancient site where 68 handmaidens were ritually slaughtered.

There is little dramatic tension in the play. It’s more of a philosophical rumination and, while the debate can be heavily portentous, verging on the banal, it is a worthy one. And where more appropriate to discuss the soul of a nation than in a museum?

The drama works best in the hands of Fielding and David Birrell as the English professor, the former with the darting eye of the visionary, the determined walk of a woman who has helped define a country’s boundaries and crowned its first king.

Birrell is excellent too. As an actor, he has that bemused, faintly amused look, turned here in wonderment at a woman who can show concern for human beings as well as his precious inanimate objects.

Heywood, Houda Echouafni as her assistant and Debbie Korley as a US soldier on security duty, effective only with a sweeping brush, achieved greater impact after the clash of music and accents made the dialogue of some early scenes hard to follow. I particularly admired Zed Josef who brought clarity and subtlety to the role of Gertrude’s assistant Salim, and Nadi Kemp-Safyi as Nasiya—a voice of the people in a museum for the people into which the people were not then allowed.

That is one of the ironies of the piece, but the play is not all pessimism. Apart from the violence there is also generosity, represented by a magnificent golden crown anonymously donated to the museum and symbolically handed down through the generations, even though later broken—not irreparably it seems—by the intruding Nasiya.

And there is a constant ‘what if?’ cry among the museum’s curators, while in the background a cabinet of smoke forms changing images as in a clairvoyant’s globe. There is always time, says Rasoul Saghir as Abu Zaman, a sage-like figure who operates between both time zones. “Time does not run out,” he says, like the sand he scatters from his pocket as he extracts an ancient coin.

Reviewer: Colin Davison