Woolley and Bell

David Birrell as Leonard Woolley and Emma Fielding as Gertrude Bell  Pictures: Ellie Kurttz

A Museum in Baghdad

The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon


This is a deep-thinking, skillfully structured show, thanks above all to a superb script by Hannah Khalil (effectively merging, interweaving and interplaying two historical periods, 1926 and 2006), but also thanks to the RSC’s well-matched creative team of director Erica Whyman and Designer Tom Piper, and to a Stratford cast, which rewarded Khalil with as fine and finessed a first staging as she could possibly have hoped for.

Why 1926 and 2006? The play’s title gives an indication. After the initial establishment of Iraq out of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the newly founded ‘kingdom’ was, Khalil reminds us, administered as a fiefdom or dependency by the British (just as newly carved out ‘Syria’ was run by the French – hence the Franco-Syrian connections till recently, although badly disruptured recently by the civil war).

Baghdad, Basra and all Syria (especially the Old Testament’s ‘Ur of the Chaldees’) contained boundless treasures, mostly dating back to the two-stage Babylonian domination (Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar etc.) and their fourth century BC (c5000-3000) well-educated predecessors, the Sumerians. Ur, many think, with its notable ziggurat (like a stepped pyramid), was almost certainly the capital of Sumer. It is close to the modern Iraqi town of Nasariyah, which figured in the Gulf War(s).

It is these treasures – one golden crown in particular (what a fabulous, fragile prop Piper has designed: one might think it gold leaf), which emerged from the postwar diggings, and which everyone yearns to try on. Enter (in 1926) two key figures, strong personalities (she more than he), British archaeologist Leonard Woolley (1880-1960, most famous for his excavations from 1922 onwards at Ur, and knighted a decade later for his services to digging and preservation), played by the excellent David Birrell; and Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), the first girl to emerge from Oxford with a first class degree (in history), and – involving herself in politics - a leading figure in the establishment of new Iraq.


Bell with the fabulous crown designed by Tom Piper

Emma Fielding playing Bell, with her fearsome intelligence, foresightedness, combativeness and determination not to be ruled by, or confronted by, men, is particularly superb: a subtly contrived, shrewd and wise piece of acting, using the Swan stage to advantage.

Many of the ancillary characters, not least Abu Zaman (Rasoul Saghir,) who in a finely measured performance acts as a kind on commentator on the action, linking, incidentally, the two periods, 1926 and 2006, which emerge in significant, and sensitive, scenes as things proceed and unwind. The Iraqis, it has been argued, are one of the most cultured, civilised and empathetic people in not just the Middle East, but the world.

That is, in part, what draws Gertrude Bell to the country. She has no intention of leaving (unlike Leonard Woolley, who traipses from dig to dig). Though herself an archaeologist, she wholly opposes Woolley’s seizure of items, much in the way as Lord Elgin poached the Parthenon Frieze (the ‘Elgin Marbles’) for the British Museum; and as controversial.

In her twenties Bell travelled in the Middle East extensively, charting and writing about its history. She served in British Intelligence there during the war, knew and collaborated with T. E. Lawrence, and had a much a love for the region as Lawrence himself (and who could have been brought into this playscript). She plans to stay, and, if necessary, to die there. She could not know that she would be dead (instability and suicide?) within a year.

But here she is utterly stable, and in command. Birrell’s Woolley is an outsider, and interloper, and though an invaluable uncoverer, is taking pretty ruthless advantage of the predatory (and oil-rich) British mandate.

Emma Fielding’s exchanges with him provide several of the impressive set-to scenes in Khalil’s closely-written play, which while an indictment of the British in the 1920s, points a stark finger at the aftermath of the destructive British and American invasions this century and the end of the last. The present day is mirrored in the past. By now we have had not just George Bush senior’s unsanctioned First Iraq war, but George Bush junior’s Second.

We know, although it is not laboured here, that the glories of Baghdad’s historic museum, after Cairo the most important in the Mid-East, will be pilfered, mainly by war-crazed Iraqis themselves: all that Bell had worked for is plundered, some gratuitously destroyed. Perhaps that’s an argument for Elgin and Woolley after all.  

Curiously the best back-up performance, arguably, was not a Brit or Iraqi, but an American: Debbie Korley as a United States marine, engages articulately with each, and like Saghir’s (unspecified) Zaman acts as a kind of sounding board. Butch, teetering between dutiful squaddie under strict orders but intelligent, engaged and sympathetic, she shines at every turn, and likewise embarks on a series of set-piece exchanges, all revealing, critical, perceptive, occasionally brash, and all advancing the story and text.


Debbie Korley as US Marine Sam York and Houda Echouafni as Layla Hassa

But Riad Richie’s Mohammed Abdullah, the museum’s frustrated, hands-on curator, and Rendah Heywood as the increasingly embittered museum director, Ghahlia Hussein, an archaeologist who fears and anticipates the same as Bell, shone in the clarity of their delivery – the speaking of every character, incidentally, was absolutely top-notch in this production (admittedly helped by the Swan’s acoustic). Designer Tom Piper took full advantage of this: the properties, essentially for the 1920s, though even the desk at which Heywood sits with laptop in 1926 as much as 2006 – a fusion of the two key periods - are finely designed. Everything seemed stylish, and markedly apt.

An instance of kidnapping (Ali Gadema) leaves one pondering: 2006, or could it have happened in Bell’s time? Gadema’s duplicate role, as the visiting royal Prime Minister, is poorly scripted. Here he serves little or no purpose, and scarcely. Enlarging him might have offered a deeper glimpse of the fabricated Iraqi kingship, which hovers only in the background. Khalil makes scant use of this: one of several (though but very few) weaknesses in such a clever, critical, observant, forward-looking and often sombre text.

Is Mesopotamia ‘the first civilisation’? Earlier than Pharoanoic Egypt? Not than Harappa (coastal Pakistan, 20,000 BC; or the southern French cave decorators? Or China? Or the Leakey-era Kenya? But of course, the protagonists here are naturally allowed to attribute it so.

The music and sound (composer/designer:  Oğuz Kaplangi, the (as usual) five-strong band directed by Phil James), was as perfect as any score I’ve heard in the last two years at the RSC. Particularly those periodic moments when Dunia Botic’s lovely, lulling voice is folded, always pianissimo, over the instruments: exquisitely relevant, enhancing tangibly oriental, without a hint of showiness or cliché. It becomes a kind of sad vocalise evoking grief for Baghdad, and Basra, Nasariyah, ill-fated Ur and vulnerable Iraqi Kurdistan. Charles Balfour’s lighting, often subdued employing a sandy amber for the 1920s scenes, was endlessly first-rate. The back-projections, especially early on, were instructive and not self-indulgent: indeed, one wishes there had been more.

Not all was plain sailing. Intellectual arguments aside, there are several moments in the play where almost the entire cast gets involved in polemical, even physical, violence. Whyman’s group blocking here, sometimes with one character circulating round the frozen rest of cast, is particularly well conceived (I felt impelled to sketch pictorial copies of them in my notes). When they did so, two or three times they spoke in unison, like a Greek chorus.

And shifting sand played a vital visual (and sonic) role. Pockets were choked with sand; the floor and props got sandy. A shower (four or five showers, actually) of sand brings the play to a meaningful, ominous end. This is Wilfred Thesiger’s Mash Arab territory, the land where Saddam Hussein gassed the northern Kurds (Rory Stewart, who while still young served as a senior civil servant in the country, contends that ‘Bell should never have acquiesced in the inclusion of the Kurdish-dominated province of Mosul into Iraq)’, imprisoned or executed opponents and drained the southern waterways. The land whence the marsh Arabs were driven out. The Iran-Iraq war (1981-88) which claimed the lives of a million young men from the two sides. And to which the Western media scarcely, if ever, refers. 

Nearly all of this is suggested or hinted at by Hannah Khalil’s splendid, stylish play, even when it is not expressly alluded to. But Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell is at the heart of it; and as Mark Jackson’s programme note points out, she is indeed ‘one of the great unsung British explorers’. Well, here she’s sung. The result is beautiful, wise and effortlessly accessible and educational. It’s a five-star show.

 To 25-01-20

Roderic Dunnett


A Museum in Baghdad will be at the Kiln Theatre, London from 22-04-20 to 23-05-20 

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