The Swan Theatre is transformed into the heart of a museum in Baghdad as we delve into the stories and history of their museum. Spanning two time-zones, the opening of the museum in 1926 and the re-opening after the Iraq war in 2006, it’s a thought-provoking production that asks the question – who owns the past?
Playwright Hannah Khalil has developed a play that looks at famous archeologist Gertrude Bell (Emma Fielding) who has confidence and determination in opening Iraq’s museum despite the challenges she faces. She is a commendable woman who has had vast achievements through her work and her courageous work ethic proves to go down in history.
The story is inspired by Bell’s influential life and Emma Fielding masters the role. She brings passion and anguish to the fiery character. Fielding’s performance feels sincere and genuine and she’s encapsulating to watch. Gertrude Bell is an immensely interesting woman – she’s a character that you could go into in a lot more depth.
Re-opening the museum in 2006 is Professor Ghalia Hussein played by Rendah Heywood. Whilst these scenes aren’t as historically interesting, we get a real sense of culture and identity through the compelling conversations Ghalia has with young archaeologist Layla (Houda Echoufani).
Tom Piper’s design is superb and it simply brings the museum to life. The projections create haunting effects that mirror the lighting excellently. The museum faces some really tough times and these are heightened by the powerful projections that push the dramatic nature of the play. The theatrical devices are bold and experimental as we are constantly shifting between 1926 and 2006.
It’s a fascinating story despite the complexities of flipping backwards and forwards in time. Through the convoluted scenes, there are some poignant and important conversations that shape the play’s narrative. It’s difficult to stage two time zones that intertwine on one exposed stage, but the characters weave together to form a story charged with heart.
We question our perspectives through their stimulating discussion and the characters develop to let us in and allow us to feel real empathy. Khalil has cleverly written the characters to be strong and four-dimensional but their vulnerabilities and flaws seep through. The writing is intelligent and alongside the history, it’s the real sense of humanity in the piece that really captures you.
A Museum in Baghdad explores colonialism, feminism and culture in Iraq – it’s an interesting and eye-opening piece of theatre that explores themes that are too often missing from the stage.
A Museum in Baghdad is on at the Swan Theatre at the RSC in Stratford-Upon-Avon until the 25th of January before transferring to the Kiln Theatre in London from the 22nd of April to the 23rd of May 2020. Tickets and information can be found on their website.