Gertrude Bell was an explorer, archaeologist, linguist, photographer, museum director and diplomat with a key role in the creation of the modern nation of Iraq. Had she been a man, she surely would have been described as “dashing” or “commanding”. Women of her skills and achievements are, however, more usually described as “formidable” or “indomitable”.
Hannah Khalil’s A Museum in Baghdad – her first play for the Royal Shakespeare Company – is inspired by Bell’s remarkable career and contentious legacy.
The play employs two coexisting timelines: the foundation of the National Museum of Iraq in 1926, and preparations to reopen part of the Museum 80 years later following the looting carried out during the 2003 invasion.
On Tom Piper’s set, consisting of desks and an empty glass cabinet, one group of characters carries out their work using fountain pens while another uses laptops. Both groups engage in similar arguments that echo throughout the decades, with passages of overlapping dialogue and speeches spoken in unison.
Emma Fielding plays Gertrude Bell with an efficient, headmistress-like authority. With her keen sense of fair play, she’s the antithesis of her colleague and rival Professor Woolley (David Birrell), who thinks nothing of taking credit where it isn’t due and would happily deposit all Iraqi treasures in the British Museum. Bell is the nucleus of the play but ultimately remains an enigma, her many achievements and complex views only lightly touched upon.
In the modern sections, the most engaging thread is the tension between the cautious director Professor Ghalia Hussein (Rendah Heywood) and young archaeologist Layla (a sharp performance by Houda Echouafni) about what a museum is for and whether such a space deserves the title without visitors. The figure of the wise elder who seems to exist in both timelines (Rasoul Saghir) feels like a tired trope in comparison and the American soldier stationed at the museum (Debbie Korley) is just annoying.
Khalil’s play of ideas is discursive and can be heavy-handed. The subject matter isn’t innately theatrical, nor is Erica Whyman’s production, but it contains surreal moments that vividly illustrate the power of historical artefacts. In one of these, Layla transforms into a goddess when she breaks all curatorial rules by trying on a treasure. A chorus chants forcefully in Arabic and English, enhanced by music by Oguz Kaplangi.
Bell chose to remain at the museum and it became the last, incomplete project of her highly eventful life. Museums are always changing and developing and, unlike plays (to a certain extent), are never ‘finished’. This play had a 10-year gestation period and although it’s illuminating and intellectually rigorous it feels cluttered as a theatrical experience. A case of one too many exhibits.