A Museum in Baghdad review – two views of Iraq, 80 years apart
A black-and-white photograph on display in London’s National Portrait Gallery inspired Hannah Khalil to write A Museum in Baghdad. The picture was of the British explorer Gertrude Bell, who helped to found both Iraq and its national museum, and eventually overdosed on sleeping pills. A fascinating life with a bit of mystery. However, that exhibition was more than 10 years ago and perhaps the subsequent play has been gestating for far too long. The piece feels over-wrangled and overwritten – to be appreciated but only from a distance.
Khalil’s earlier play 68* Years was a haunting work about occupied Palestine, which has stayed with me ever since its London premiere in 2016. It felt as if the writing flowed naturally from Khalil, who is of Irish-Palestinian heritage. But this latest piece doesn’t work nearly as well, and feels trapped between two worlds in different and difficult ways.
Erica Whyman’s hard-working production awkwardly straddles two eras. We watch as two women – Bell and Iraqi archaeologist Ghalia Hussein – struggle to open a museum in Baghdad. Bell’s scenes unfold in 1926, shortly after the birth of Iraq, and Hussein’s scenes are set in 2006, after the invasion and subsequent looting. The women sit at adjacent desks and their action and dialogue frequently overlaps. Both worry about the museum, the role it might play in galvanising national identity and the influence they might wield. All interesting ideas but voiced in perfect unison, using the exact same words? It’s galling, and oddly reductive.
Emma Fielding and Rendah Heywood are underused. Fielding plays Bell as a sort of gung-ho but increasingly gloomy headmistress. Heywood’s Hussein, based on a real-life Iraqi archaeologist, spends an awful lot of time shouting at the locals. Both parts feel like missed opportunities, conceived with compassion but lost in translation.
It’s only in the mystifying yet compelling scene changes that this play really engages. Whyman’s slightly dry production becomes a little odd – slippery and intriguing. Haunting projections light up the empty museum display cases, ghosts and goddesses stalk the stage, beauty and danger rise up together and Iraq’s history suddenly comes to life.
Rescuers searched for survivors after an overnight strike in Serhiivka, Odesa Oblast, that officials said was carried out by Russia.The State Emergency Service of Ukraine posted a video and photographs on July 1 showing rescuers combing through the rubble of a high-rise building in the resort town, south of Odesa city.The footage shows a person being carried out of the destroyed building by firefighters.Storyful has not verified additional video in the post that shows yellow buildings, or interior footage.Ukrainian officials said at least 18 people were killed in the strikes on the 9-storey residential tower in Serhiivka, and in further strikes in Odesa city. Credit: SES of Ukraine via Storyful