Hannah Khalil brings her new play, A Museum in Baghdad, to the RSC’s Swan Theatre. She has written this play to explore history, challenge stereotypes and look at what it means to try and create a nation.
“It is about the museum in Baghdad and the two openings of it, the original opening in 1926 by Gertrude Bell and the re-opening post looting in 2006,” Hannah said. “we have these two different time periods and we have one character who is a caretaker of the museum who navigates both, he is a magical character who exists in both times.”
Inspiration for the play struck for the playwright when she popped into the Portrait Gallery in London for a cup of tea. “As I was walking through to the cafe, I walked through an exhibition of Victorian female explorers, and there she was – Gertrude Bell,” she said. “The photo of her caught my eye and when I read about her I find out that she was an explorer that travelled through the Middle East and she set up the museum in Baghdad. I was really shocked and quite cross with myself that I’d never heard of her.”
Hannah then went away and started to do lots of research, intending to write a biopic play about Gertrude Bell. Then a few years later she was at an event at the Arab British centre at a talk with an archeologist. She learnt all about the stuff that had been looted from the museum many years later.
The archeologist then ended the talk with photograph of a man and said: “This is the caretaker of the museum, I always end my talks with a photo of him because I feel like he has always been there and always will be there.” This then inspired Hannah to set the play around the museum. “I decided then it had to be set during two times, with the caretaker appearing in both time periods.”
Hannah had delved into a lot of research and came across the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, an institute set up by Gertrude Bell who left money in her will to create a fund that trained up archeologists in Iraq.
One of the main reasons for writing the play was because Hannah wanted to change the perception and constant stereotypes of Arabs. “I feel really frustrated. I watch TV shows and it is always Arabs in suicide vests, the men being these aggressive figures and usually terrorists. Then the women being weak and subservient – it is just bullshit,” she said. “I don’t recognise it. It’s not my family, it’s not my friends and it’s not what I recognise in my community.
“I always write Arab characters that are real three-dimensional human beings that exist in this world. They are contradictions and a mix of things. They have the same wants, needs and desires that all of us do. It seems so simple and silly to say that, but nothing is changing.
“You don’t need to define people by their religion. White characters in dramas aren’t always Catholics or Christians, it is never discussed. So why do brown characters have to be defined by their religion? It drives me bonkers. Always when I write, there has to be Arab characters in it and it’s always about trying to undermine people’s expectation. I want to readdress the balance and try and make real people on stage that represent my community.”
After writing the play Hannah was keen to get it staged at the RSC. “I just kept sending my play to them – I’m nothing if not tenacious,” she laughed. “I then had a conversation with the literary department who said they really like it but it felt like me as a writer five years ago. I did start writing it an awful long time ago and have changed as a writer since.
“So I went back to the play and really unearthed it by shaking it up quite a lot. I think they were quite surprised at how radically I changed it because the story is effectively the same. That was when the conversation really started about putting it on in the Swan Theatre.”
“When I am writing for theatre, I always ask myself, why is this a play? What is this that means it can only work on stage?” Hannah said. “Having these two time frames overlapping means there are a lot of theatrical elements. People will need to be on their toes but will hopefully really enjoy the game of seeing the similarities and differences between the two times.”
It’s set to be bursting with drama and magic. Described as a real feast for the senses, Tom Piper has designed the set to be right inside the museum. Hannah gushed about how this is all down to working with the RSC. “I’ve worked with some amazing people but to be working with people who are brilliant but also have this weight of this institution behind them, everything feels possible. I don’t have to go ‘don’t worry if that prop is broken I’ll pop to Poundland.’ We have all these amazing people working on the show and what is inside my head is coming to life,” she said.
“If you’d have told me a year ago that I have a play at the RSC, in the Swan and in a season with a play by another non-white woman, a woman of colour – I’d have never believed it. I think it’s so clever to have this season about what it is to make a nation, could we have it at a more pressing time?”
A Museum in Baghdad is a play about history yet challenges themes and stereotypes of today. “I really hope people are entertained by the theatricality and spectacle,” Hannah said. “But I also hope people listen and that it provokes conversation. I want people to think about things and think about where we’ve been, where we are now and where we are going.”
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.
Photo credit // Ellie Kurttz