Theatre as an act of re-imagining and storytelling is an approach displayed masterfully in the new Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production A Museum in Baghdad. In conversation with MEMO, playwright Hannah Khalil describes "Iraq" as the object of focus, adding that the performance throws out universal questions unresolved by history. In its attempt to chart decades of suffering, the play unpacks and deliberates over pressing questions about the value we assign to human life versus the value we assign to irreplaceable artefacts.
A Museum in Baghdad takes us back in time, across to important historical chapters, Iraq under British and US imperial rule, when the modern state's boundaries and legal foundations were transformed. The far-reaching consequences of those epochs are fleshed out on stage by Khalil and director Erica Whyman alongside the under-recognised role that women played across both eras. The spark, Khalil explains, was her discovery of Gertrude Bell at London's National Portrait Gallery nine years ago. While her initial reaction was one of anger for not having known that Bell existed, this turned into curiosity that culminated in the play's writing; 10 years in the making, it was, says Khalil, "a labour of love."
The play's creative vision opens up a space for critical thinking in which the audience will be challenged to think about the way that nations are made and unmade. It does so by entering the wider and ongoing debate about artefacts and their protection, management and recovery. Discussions around these questions have grown salient in recent years with particular attention to oil industry sponsorship of the arts.
Similar to plays that Shakespeare wrote in the context of Elizabethan England and London, A Museum in Baghdad, Whyman tells MEMO, forces us, Iraqis and non-Iraqis alike, to re-read our contemporary history anew.
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The play begins at 1926. It's the final days of Gertrude Bell's life in British-ruled Mesopotamia. Lady Bell, confronted by the impossible task of establishing Iraq's first National Museum and housing its ancient history under one roof, is described as "impossible" by actress Emma Fielding who plays her, as "she was trying to organise chaos". Another female protagonist is Ghalia Hussein. Like Miss Bell, Iraqi-British Hussein is an archaeologist educated in England. Her presence acts as an important reminder that the mission of curating Iraq's museum and safeguarding Iraqi heritage was not Bell's alone. She is played by actress Rendah Heywood, whose father is Iraqi. Like Khalil, Heywood is encountering Gertrude Bell for the first time. "I had never heard of her, and yet she had such a role to play in the making of modern Iraq," she says. War is an immovable fact that finds its way into the play, but Heywood assures me that it's not a war play.
Sitting inside the RSC's rehearsal space surrounded by props, Heywood reveals further that the Hussein character was inspired by the life of late Iraqi archaeologist Lamia Gailani, who passed away in January this year. She was perhaps the single most famous British-Iraqi whose quest to restore to Iraq's Museum what was pilfered has immortalised her.
The New York Times said that Dr Gailani "was in the vanguard of female Iraqi archaeologists." Time separates the two women, Bell and Hussein, but their pursuit of the impossible is a fate that binds them together. It's abundantly clear as I observe the cast rehearse that in the absence of either woman, the story would be a difficult one to tell.
These women are joined on stage by another female heroine, Layla. Played by Houda Echoufani, Layla is an Iraqi archaeologist and native of Baghdad who is leading the struggle to recover centuries-old artefacts. "I was excited about playing the part of Layla as a woman existing within the male dominated world of archaeology, in Baghdad, post-looting," Echoufani explained. "It fascinated me."
Her character holds up a mirror to "identity-based sentiments of belonging" whose return to Iraq is received with mixed reactions. How the diaspora engages with history and the motherland are questions that Khalil is deliberate about asking as someone whose identity as a Palestinian is always challenged. As part of their research, members of the cast were invited to the British Museum to meet home-grown, female Iraqi archaeologists. "The British Museum brought them over from Baghdad to teach them to preserve and restore artefacts, particularly any damaged items," said Echoufani, adding how inspirational it was to have "the chance to meet these women in the flesh."
Integral to the plot is the character of Abu Zaman — the keeper of time — played by Iraqi-born Rasoul Saghir, who shares his excitement about the play as a former drama student who grew up in Baghdad reading about the innovative productions at the RSC. Abu Zaman lives in the museum, which is also where the play is set from start to finish. Saghir's character has internalised the museum's local history and that of its objects through the art of storytelling. During his residence he encounters a colourful range of characters: those who want to lock up Iraq's heritage; those who want to protect it; and others who hope to preserve it for future generations.
Saghir spoke to me at length about the ongoing threats facing Iraqi artefacts and the country's archaeological sites, and the importance of bringing to the stage the extraordinary tales of ordinary Iraqis.
This has made the play both educational and personal, as assistant creative director Yasmeen Ghrawi points out. "I'm discovering Iraq all over again," she says. This is reflected further by the choice of casting actors of Middle Eastern origin. The Brits in the room, director Whyman jokes, are "a minority, which is lovely, but even for my middle eastern colleagues who are from across the region, we've needed to dig down as it says in the play to understand what our deeper history is, both because we have to understand what it is to be an archaeologist and also because we're trying to understand what we're directly talking about when we talk about the conflicts outside of the walls of the Museum in 1926 and 2006."
The re-opening of Iraq's National Museum took place in 2015 but in the play it reopens in 2006, three years after the museum's display cabinets which housed its prized collections were in reality stripped bare. In the context of America's occupation, this is brought into focus through the character of Sam York, a US soldier, played by actress Debbie Korley. When asked about how she slots into the play, Korley explains that York "is very much part of the Museum settings in that she wants to provide protection".
While the name "Sam York" may lead one to conjure up an image of a typical male soldier, the character was intentionally cast as a woman. "It's just one of those names that's quite generic," Korley notes. As a black actress, she explains, her character offers a commentary about how race relations in the United States are reproduced in the military at home and abroad.
This historical play is perhaps among the first to tackle a subject as painful as Iraq's cultural loss in the context of occupational rule. According to Khalil, by blurring the political and personal, it projects a painful lesson and truth that heritage, like humans, can be among the first casualties of war from a "non-linear perspective, outside of news reports". Iraq is just a case study that lifts the lid off universal questions — what and whose history gets told — which are applicable way beyond the Middle East.