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Emma Fielding on playing Gertrude Bell in the RSC’s A Museum in Baghdad

The Stratford Herald - 28th October 2019

A Museum in Baghdad, the new play from Hannah Khalil now on at the Swan Theatre and directed by Erica Whyman, tells the story of two Iraqs. In 1926, the nation of Iraq is in its infancy, and British archaeologist Gertrude Bell is founding a museum in Baghdad. In 2006, Ghalia Hussein is attempting to reopen the museum despite the looting during the war. Here Emma Fielding speaks to Gill Sutherland about playing Bell.

The play spans huge areas geographically and politically – it must have required a lot of research?

I love all of that. I’m lucky enough to have done quite a few plays that do require quite a bit of digging around, and it’s the best tertiary education ever. You find out stuff, and go to places you would never normally – like visiting the nuns at Tyburn Convent for Measure for Measure. For this the cast visited backstage at the British Museum and someone from the Horniman Museum came to share their experiences. It’s about trying to find out what makes the characters tick.

Are you drawing on personal experiences?

My father was in the diplomatic service and I’ve been lucky that I’ve spent time in the desert at Saudi, and I’ve travelled a lot as a kid. All of that feeds in. I was getting worried that I didn’t understand the political turmoil of Iraq over the last 300 years – or Sumerian pottery! – but you have to give yourself a break. We are dealing with our version.

Is there a burden of doing Gertrude Bell justice – and of putting her in her rightful place in the history books?

One task I’m aware of is that in portraying Gertrude Bell there are many people who care about her – sort of like passionate Janeites, the Austen fans. You can’t let them down. But the play only deals with the end of her life – and she seems to have lived about nine lives, with her gardening, languages, climbing and introducing safer conditions for factory workers – the list goes on!

She isn’t as well known as she should be. Although she defended the rights of working women, she was against suffrage, and so that had an impact. Some of her thoughts were of her time and quite misguided. And I suspect that when feminists were looking for icons in the 1970s and 80s they dismissed her because of her beliefs – ‘can’t have her’.

Gertrude had a passion for the Middle East and did what she thought best. She did genuinely believe in autonomous rule for Arab nations – she didn’t believe it should be a puppet state for the Empire, and so that was quite ahead of her time. Because we are dealing with her right at the end of her life in 1926, so all I have to do is bring on a credible person without necessarily referencing all that has gone on before in her life.

The play does sound epic – there’s a lot to take in for the audience. Will it be bamboozling if you haven’t swotted up before seeing it?

You have to not worry about the background – just come and let the play arrive in your head. There’s nothing intimidating, and hopefully after seeing it people will want to go and find out more about Gertrude Bell or archeologist Leonard Woolley, the history of the Middle East, the end of the Ottoman Empire – there’s so much that it touches on gently and lightly. But basically it’s about human beings in a part of the world that has over millennia been invaded – and there’s been upset.

The play is about legacy and how you keep going, putting one foot in front of the other. For me it’s been an amazing privilege learning bits of Arabic and to be in the room with the cast, people from all over the Middle East, and sharing their experiences.

I’ve heard that the play uses magic realism. Tell us about that.

There are dual time frames – of 1926 and 2006 – with two groups of people trying to achieve the same aims, of establishing a museum in Baghdad. It reinforces the idea of common humanity. The play also works on a dream-like level – it plays with time, and there’s some beautiful music and extraordinary design. The scenes are scenes, but some things are replayed – so there’s an element of magic realism but it’s not One Hundred Years of Solitude. You can follow it, but be open to it and don’t worry.

What do you think audiences will get from it?

It doesn’t neatly wrap things up in a box. I think it’s showing things are cyclical and how people’s lives repeat through history. The word that keeps coming through is ‘I’m a human’ – that might sound banal but it’s about the common shared experience. Hopefully it will inspire inquiry or debate, and leave the audience energised.

Interviews © Emma Fielding - good music