Action not words needed to bring life to this museum piece
A Museum in Baghdad, RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford, until January 25
Hannah Khalil’s play is an ambitious undertaking.
It seeks to give deserved prominence to the relatively forgotten Edwardian explorer Gertrude Bell, attempting to set up a Baghdad museum in 1926 in the newly-created Iraq, whilst mirroring this endeavour 80 years later as her modern counterpart attempts to do the same from the ruins of her war-torn country.
In the process, the audience is asked to consider the role of a museum in preserving a country’s past, and whether it is helpful in creating a cultural identity; who museums are actually for, and the arguments for and against removing archaeological treasures to more secure environments (usually in the West). The action is confined to the museum. The two different time periods occur simultaneously on stage, a device to help us recognise the similarity in the challenges the two women face. This is sometimes heavy-handedly highlighted by having Gertude (Emma Fielding) and Ghalia (Rendah Heywood) speak exactly the same lines together to Abu Zaman (Rasoul Saghir), who spans both eras as the museum caretaker/general factotum. Such forced theatricality occurs because this play relies on telling, not showing. Points are invariably made didactically and sometimes ponderously, such as “A nation needs to look into its past to know where it comes from”.
The nature of the material itself suggests potential dramatic challenges in the staging of it but unfortunately these are not convincingly addressed, so that at times you are left thinking it’s a radio play that’s found its way onto a stage. An American GI assigned to the museum for security, incongruously spends most of her time pushing a broom around, presumably so that something on stage isn’t static. Occasionally, the entire cast declaim together in English and Arabic to impressive effect, but these moments only draw attention to the pedestrian pace of the rest of the drama, and make little sense in themselves. Even jeopardy is at arm’s length. The violence, real and potential, of both periods is alluded to but largely exists somewhere else. This play needed to be more ambitious not simply in its content, but in its dramatisation, and to trust its audience
more to go with it.
Photos by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC.