Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 23 May 2020
The little Swan, a jewel-box of a theatre, often sees the new plays the RSC does best: immaculate technique and careful clarity elucidating complex and unfamiliar themes. From nuclear research to prehistoric China, Rome and medieval or Tudor political histories, intricate stories have leapt into life here. This, infuriatingly, is not such a moment.
It should be, for the topic of Hannah Khalil’s play is arresting It takes two ages in parallel: in 1926 the archaeologist-explorer and nation-builder Gertrude Bell is passionately founding a museum after the Great Powers drew their arrogant ruler-straight lines across the Middle East to create nations and “mandates” out of Ottoman Mesopotamia.
Then in 2006, after the Iraq wars, with American troops still there, we see the modern attempt under a new curator – Ghalia, again a woman – to rebuild it after the years it became ‘Saddam’s gift shop’ inaccessible to the public, and many antiquities of ancient Mesopotamia had fallen to looting and sectarian destruction .
The subject and intention are good, the questions worth asking. What are museums for? Do people need them to buoy up nationhood, community and pride? Do colonial or interventionary powers have any right to try and tell hungry nations how to feel anyway? The performances are fine – especially Emma Fielding as Bell and her quiet dignified aide Salim (Zed Josef), and Rendah Heywood’s wearily anxious modern curator, a returning Iraqi educated in the West .
All do their best with the repetitiveness and the infuriatingly threadbare drawing of relationships. Two characters, Abu Zaman and Nasiya, are intended entirely as symbols, timelessly straddling time and space, and sometimes leading incantatory ensemble movements in Arabic and English. These, according to the script, should “have the effect of simultaneous translation”, but in fact, unless you are an Arabic speaker, are as incomprehensible as cuneiform itself.
The atmospherics in those chants and movement, the centrality of a rather marvellous ancient crown and a final cascade of the sands of time over the whole doomed lot, are elegantly RSC. And there is nothing wrong with having two periods onstage at once: sometimes, not often enough, parallels and ironies are well pointed up as the two curators battle with time, local problems and – in Bell’s period – with the brisk tweedy view of the English archaeologist Woolley . He is trying to borrow a statue for the British Museum and presciently barks as Bell struggles to fill the shelves “I predict it’ll be all back in the BM by teatime, when civil war erupts again and they go back to their tribes”.
Advance study of the background, the text, the period and the good programme would help, but for a lay audience it feels, despite Eric Whyman’s direction, like a mess. The first half caused some heads to nod visibly, and the conversations between the teams, for all the cast’s high competence, felt as repetitive and frustrating as the job itself must have been .
Some light relief is provided, though rather too often, by Debbie Korley as a honky American soldier with a flak- jacket and extreme Tennessee twang, forever sweeping the floor (did they?). She adds to the sense of misandry, perhaps to echo Bell’s exasperation at warmongering males, with a nasty tale about strangling a fellow-GI’s pet stray dog to because he pinched her bum.
rsc.org.uk to 23 May