REVIEW: RSC's A Museum in Baghdad is humane and earnest - but could be so much better

Peter Ormerod reviews A Museum in Baghdad, presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford

Wednesday, 23rd October 2019, 11:32 am
Rasoul Saghir as Abu Zaman. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

There is barely a cynical syllable in the script; the production is as generous, good-natured and warm as one could hope for; the play itself rings with humanity and truth. There are countless shows far more worthy of criticism than A Museum in Baghdad, which is evidently the product of much love and care and devotion.

Sadly, though, it is not one of the great theatrical successes of the RSC's year. It should give no one any pleasure to find fault with it, not least because it is directed by Erica Whyman, one of the company's most vital figures. But in the interests of honesty, and while ticket prices remain pretty hefty for the most part, one is left with the unpleasant task of calling attention to its various flaws, which, on this evidence, are in danger of outweighing its virtues.

The play is new, and has been written by Hannah Khalil, an experienced and award-winning playwright. The museum of the title was founded in 1926 by an Englishwoman, Gertrude Bell, as the simultaneously young and ancient nation of Iraq - formerly Mesopotamia - strives to claim its own identity. Bell's vision was to use its past to unite its various and diverse peoples; history, she believes, is the surest foundation. The museum survived until 2003, when it was looted among the chaos of war, losing many of its artefacts, which had received insufficient protection from US forces. As a symbol of the nation's attempted recovery, it reopened in 2015.

Rendah Heywood, Houda Echouafni, Emma Fielding and Debbie Korley as Ghalia, Layla, Gertrude Bell and Sam York. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

Khalil's work deftly links the museum's birth and rebirth, telling its story in two timelines that often abut and overlap. The 1920s and the 2000s sometimes alternate and sometimes merge; the parallels between the two projects, and their roles in helping rebuild Iraq, are made clear. But perhaps the play's greatest difficulty is that it makes rather too much too clear.

Its themes are undoubtedly interesting. It asks who should lay claim to a country's treasures, where they should rightly be kept, what they are really for, what the role of culture may be in a warzone, whether stone can ever be worth more than flesh; it probes notions of nation and nationality; it examines the marginalisation of women. While these feel like current issues, Bell is shown as a woman who also gave them great thought. It is rather a pity then that the script has a rather leaden quality, with not a great deal of poetry or beauty or wit or subtlety. There are thus parts of the play that feel rather like listening to a somewhat stodgy episode of The Moral Maze. The audience is left with little to do; there is not much left to the imagination, so blatant and direct is the writing, with the characters discussing these deep matters in bald terms.

With the staging offering not a great deal of flair and the script often lacking much drama or entertainment, it is left to the actors to bring life to proceedings. This they did from time to time. Emma Fielding is tremendously likeable as Bell, imbuing her portrayal with great charm and a compassionate, determined wisdom. She did not have her most commanding night, however, with some lines not coming out as well as they might; we can trust she will improve in this aspect as the run progresses. A couple of other performances really stood out, with Rendah Heywood sharing some of Bell's spirit - and lines - as Ghalia Hussein, the director of the museum in 2006, giving a portrayal of clarity and conviction. Best of all though was Nadi Kemp-Sayfi as the impassioned Nasiya, who appears to embody the spirit of her wounded yet proud land, piercing perceived pretensions and serving as a vivid reminder of bloody reality. Oguz Kaplangi's music is fine and stirring, too, lending much-needed tension; it would have been good to have heard more of it.

The story concerns itself at one point with Ghalia's fears that the museum will reopen before it is ready. There is a certain irony in this, because it may be that A Museum in Baghdad is not quite ready yet either. It is not that its rough edges need smoothing down - rough edges were partly why Whyman's Romeo and Juliet was such a triumph - but more that it may benefit from a bit more distance and perspective: the creative team are possibly just a little too close to the work. Whyman has been bold and brave and respectfully irreverent with her Shakespeare adaptations, and a bit more of that vision would have helped here. There are moments of beauty: both halves end in ways that are visually, sonically and emotionally striking, and the use of vocal cacophony, with words and languages clamouring for attention before resolving, makes for a potent and arresting device, as does the recurrent motif of sand flowing like time. These touches suggest there is a much better work here awaiting excavation.

Rendah Heywood as Ghalia. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

A Museum in Baghdad is earnest and sincere; it is on the side of the angels; its existence makes the world better. It has a good heart and has all the right motives; it is a force for good. But as theatre, it is not what it could be. Among other things, the play is about rebirth; one hopes it might at some point itself be reborn in a manner that does itself justice.

* A Museum in Baghdad runs until January 25. Visit to book.

Emma Fielding, Zed Josef and Houda Echouafni as Gertrude Bell, Salim and Layla. Picture: Ellie Kurttz
Houda Echouafni and Emma Fielding as Layla and Gertrude Bell. Picture: Ellie Kurttz
Nadi Kemp-Sayfi, Houda Echouafni and Riad Richie as Nasiya, Layla and Mohammed. Picture: Ellie Kurttz