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14th Nov, 2019

REVIEW - A Museum in Baghdad, RSC, Swan Theatre, Stratford

Matthew Salisbury 23rd Oct, 2019 Updated: 23rd Oct, 2019

A Museum in Baghdad

Swan Theatre

Questions of where antiquities belong have been raging around cultural circles for generations. From the Elgin marbles and their continued residence in London to the constant flux of paintings loaned from gallery to gallery in a temporary attempt to piece together any painter’s reasonably complete works, culture is often claimed to be not where it belongs.

But belonging is itself a bafflingly complex concept. Should coins found in an English field be kept here or returned to the invading Romans who made them? Whose story do they form a more important part of? Many of the antiquities in dusty cases in western museums were made by civilisations long lost to us in countries whose names, borders and complexions are now completely different with meaningful connections to the past broken.

Add to this ethical dilemma the lasting whiff of patronising imperialism and you have the moral, political and intellectual shifting sands on which this play’s ponderings are built.

Hannah Khalil’s A Museum in Baghdad weaves together the tales of two women working to open the said museum to the public, their stories separated by the gap between 1920s British intervention and 2000s post-war rebuilding. Both face a threat to the safety of the treasures in their care and both have to wrestle with the conundrum of letting the public own something which may well not be fully safe in their hands.

Emma Fielding and Rendah Heywood are individually excellent and well-matched as the two strong central forces. The ‘woman in a man’s world’ issue is not lost, but is not overplayed in a script which attempts to place the focus more on questions of archaeology and curation. There’s commendable support from Zed Josef and Houda Echouafni playing corresponding Iraqi characters across the time zones, and from Rasoul Saghir as a kind of everyman spanning the whole timeline.

The staging is pleasingly theatrical although the periodic shift into chopped up, poetic ensemble sections is perhaps used once too often. The twin timelines play out across the same space and at times comment on each other. There  are many moments when the similarities between the women’s stories lead to  shared lines. It’s nicely handled in Erica Whyman’s constantly watchable production.

Oguz Kaplangi’s music is excellent throughout – a haunting underscore never distracting from the action and Tom Piper’s multimedia design is a masterpiece, bringing some stunning visuals to a fairly blank space.

In the end the museum’s founder is herself figuratively buried in the sands of time. Although this is a play content to raise questions and prompt thoughts without necessarily placing its money on any particular message, perhaps it’s the fact that our attempts to contain time and make a narrative of our ongoing story will always be defeated by changing times and fortunes. Like a gallery of randomly discovered antiquities, it’s a narrative that needs curation.

As a footnote to the play, it has this week been unveiled that statues in heritage sites destroyed in recent purges by ISIS forces have been replaced by stunning exact replicas using the latest digital scanning methods and the most authentic of materials. This opens the way for antiquities to find their way home either as putatively identical copies or as originals. And that opens up another debate over the intrinsic value of originals in telling any cultural story. The debate, like the desert sands, will soon be shifting again.

The play will run until January 25.

Matthew Salisbury

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