Playwright Hannah Khalil makes her Royal Shakespeare Company(RSC) debut with A Museum In Baghdad, which is on at The Swan Theatre until January 25, 2020. It then moves on to London's Kiln Theatre from April 22 to May 23.
Inspired by an exhibition about female Victorian explorers at London's National Portrait Gallery, Khalil was moved to write after seeing a photograph of archaeologist Gertrude Bell.
From that seed grew this interesting play that spans two eras in Iraq, 80 years apart, but with striking similarities between them.
It asks searching questions about western paternalism, the UK's history with Iraq over the past century and the value of historic objects over real lives.
The play revolves around two women preparing to open the same archaeology museum in Baghdad - Gertrude Bell for the original launch of the museum in 1926 and Ghalia Hussein reopening it in 2006, in the months after the recent Iraq War.
The turmoil of those early years in the 1920s is positioned in a parallel with current times - of a tumultuous Iraq rebuilding itself after the war.
Both eras have the symmetry of a country coming to terms with its civilian loss with the added connection of a mysterious caretaker Abu Zaman. Rasoul Saghir plays Zaman as a friendly eternal spirit guiding the women, but it's never really clear what he is.
In the historic era, there's the strong presence of actor Emma Fielding as Gertrude Bell, giving the character the gravitas she needs to explain why a single woman abroad in Victorian times managed to gain the respect of the British Government and shape the future of Mesopotamia.
Two parallel stories run through the play
Bell based herself in the Middle East and ingratiated herself into the region, working for the British Government in World War I before becoming influential in creating the modern state of Iraq under British rule, alongside her archaeology work.
This piece concentrates on Bell setting up the National Museum of Iraq with her assistant, leading up to her death in Baghdad in 1926. There's plenty of political discussion too with Bell considering the impact of their actions on future generations.
In an aligned time in the future is the troubled museum director Ghalia Hussein, played by Rendah Heywood, who fled Iraq years ago to live in London but has returned for this project.
She is battling against her team of curators on many levels, first and foremost over how historic items should be treated. While she wants to keep them locked up and protected in a safe, her young Iraqi colleagues feel they should be on view and shared for all to see. Then there are questions of whether more value and attention is being paid to the artefacts than the people left struggling and dying on the streets.
Adding more depth are issues over belonging, especially as Hussein is treated as a foreigner rather than Iraqi for not living through the war in Baghdad, and the American presence in Iraq with a female soldier stationed at the ransacked museum while the work goes on.
The characterisations are the real forte of this play and you feel a bond and interest in the minor characters. The interplay between soldier Sam York, the acerbic young archaeologist Layla Hassan and curator Mohammed Abdullah in the modern era are the strongest sections of the production.
Thought-provoking and fascinating
Houda Echouafni as Layla, Debbie Korley as the soldier and Riad Richie as Mohammed are strong performers, making you want to see more of them on stage.
Translating key sections from English into Arabic through various characters also adds a new aspect to this intriguing drama.
Its staging is designed well but, at times, the overlap of conversations between the eras seems a little too contrived and halts the flow of the piece. It could do with slightly more development to make it slicker and flow better.
What it does provide on the whole is fascinating and thought-provoking. A Museum In Baghdad has inconvenient truths and prompts discussion about Britain's colonial legacy, but that isn't a bad thing.