A Museum in Baghdad review: Fascinating history of a nation bogged down by monotonous mood

Ellie Kurttz
Ellie Kurttz

It took 10 years for Hannah Khalil’s play about Iraq to gestate. And to be brutally honest that probably wasn’t long enough.

Her script follows two women in 1926 and 2006: the English adventurer and diplomat Gertrude Bell, who helped create Iraq after the First World War and established the titular museum to give the new nation a sense of its Mesopotamian past: and Ghalia Hussein, a fictionalised director trying to reopen the institution after its looting following the fall of Saddam.

The play asks interesting questions about culture, colonialism and the challenges facing women then and now. Most pointedly, it asks who and what museums are really for, and how the preservation of historic artefacts should be weighed against the loss of human lives. But the twin narratives are confused and repetitive — a mystical caretaker character flits between both timelines — and the mood monotonous.

Emma Fielding as Bell and Rendah Heywood as Hussein start off strong but quickly get stuck in a rut of clench-jawed fatalism. Bell is harried by Professor Leonard Woolley, a smarmy embodiment of the patriarchy, while the cosmopolitan Thalia is repeatedly told she’s not a proper Iraqi. Also in the 2006 narrative another archaeologist, the simmering Layla (Houda Echouafni) fends off the amorous advances of colleague Mohammed and the friendly overtures of an improbably perky, female American soldier.

Anger, though, is the default mood of the whole piece. Bell is cross, exasperated or anguished throughout. The 21st-century characters rarely converse without snapping, shouting, or petulantly one-upping each other in the atrocity stakes. This may be a valid tonal reflection of feelings in Iraq but it’s dramatically numbing.

On the plus side, I learned more about the history of the nation and of Middle Eastern geopolitics than I have from many Iraq War dramas. And Fielding would almost certainly be a compelling Gertrude Bell in a drama that explored her life in depth. Unfortunately, Khalil’s play isn’t it.

In rep until January 25 (01789 331111, rsc.org.uk)

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