by Hannah Khalil
RSC Swan Theatre
11 October – 25 January 2020
Hannah Khalil’s new play was conceived when she discovered the fascinating history of Gertrude Bell, whose work and travels in the Middle East at the beginning of the 20th century led to her foundation of the Baghdad Archaeological Museum in 1926. The attempts to reopen it after the looting which followed the wars in Iraq at the beginning of this century, then suggested to Khalil the series of parallels and thoughts about colonialism and national heritage which form the basis of A Museum in Baghdad.
Her study of the twin worlds of 1926 and 2006 is not set out, as it might have been, in two halves, but as an interwoven whole, with Emma Fielding’s Bell and her assistant Salim (Zed Joseph) occupying the same space as Rendah Heywood’s Ghalia Hussein – the new director of the museum – and her assistant Layla. While unconscious of the characters from the other side of the 80 year gap, they are often saying the same things as each other, sometimes in unison, pointing the intractability of the problems which confront both of them. And when, in the striking image which ends the play, we are reminded of the sands of the desert which have buried civilisations since the dawn of time, the Ozymandian reminder seems the perfect context.
Erica Whyman’s direction is imaginative and fluent, and her cast do her proud. Abu Zaman, the only character to inhabit both periods, who acts as the Virgil to the museum directors’ Dantes and guides them with a wisdom born of timeless experience, is played with great dignity by Rasoul Saghir, an Iraqi actor. Houda Echouafni’s hijab-wearing Layla is passionate in her commitment to the project, and David Birrell, as rival archaeologist Professor Leonard Woolley, gives a sense of perspective, and sometimes humour, to the 1926 scenes.
Tom Piper’s set is a skeletal version of the museum: storage shelves at the back, a table and desk at which the two archaeologists work in tandem, and a single large glass display case which sometimes holds projected images of shifting cloud patterns and sometimes appears to be exhibiting the statue of a person standing behind it. And Oguz Kaplangi provides a quiet but very helpful musical enhancement to the setting.
There is certainly plenty of food for thought here; I was most struck by the thought that the looting of tombs and treasures in the 21st century is only a continuation of a human activity which goes back to long before Mesopotamia became Iraq – and that colonialism and cultural appropriation are only different expressions of it. But, suggestive as these ideas are, they don’t in themselves make an entirely satisfying play. Not a great deal has changed from beginning to end, and I can’t help but feel that what is really missing is a narrative line which could give it a sense of development.