The Desert Queen

David Farn
Hands On NE
Arts Centre Washington

Phillippa Wilson as Gertrude Bell Credit: Peter Dawson

When playwright David Farn (persuaded by his wife) saw an exhibition at Newcastle’s Hancock Museum about Gertrude Bell (1868 – 1926) who was an archaeologist, mountaineer, explorer, spy, diplomat, author, gardener, photographer, mapmaker, librarian, linguist, friend of Lawrence of Arabia, Winston Churchill and King Faisal of Iraq and who came from the North East, he knew he wanted to write a play about her.

But with such a huge canvas, with locations ranging from Redcar to the Middle East, from the Alps to the desert, and with the huge number of people she met, even the combined resources of the National Theatre and the RSC might be stretched!

But where the Monsterist approach is impossible, the Miniaturist might just fit the bill, and this is the route Farn, dramaturg Dolores Porretta-Brown and director Neil Armstrong took: a simple set comprising a backdrop, which suggests a Bedouin tent, and a few props, along with two actors, one playing Gertrude and one everyone else.

Essentially Gertrude tells her own story, with little interludes in which she interacts—usually quite briefly—with the others.

Phillippa Wilson plays Gertrude Bell and the others by Brian Lonsdale with a wide range of accents, facial expressions and hats. I particularly liked his portrayal of Gertrude’s French stepmother, all Parisian grace, parasol—and sounding like René Artois from ‘Allo ‘Allo!

Wilson gives us a very engaging and likeable Gertrude who wears her learning lightly. It would be so easy for her achievements and the wide range of her abilities to make her a formidable character but not so here. Farn’s writing shows the up- and down-side of being Miss Bell, the joy in her achievements but the sadness of an unfulfilled love life, and Wilson’s performance captures both.

The moments of humour from Lonsdale's characters—sometimes just an "hello" and a raised eyebrow—gives that extra touch of humanity.

It is only 50 minutes long and that, for me, is the right length, the right amount of time to get to know Miss Bell and her story and to relate to her as a human being and not just an impressive historical figure.

The production tours to The Winter Gardens, Sunderland (30 July); The Little Theatre, Cleadon (31 July); Fulwell Community Library, Sunderland (2 August); The Exchange, Tynemouth (3 and 4 August); City Theatre, Durham (5 August) and The Customs House, South Shields (6 August @ 7:45).

Reviewer: Peter Lathan