A Tale of Two History plays

In a time when “fake news” is another way of dressing up prejudice as undeniable and incontrovertible “fact” the truth of historical events is increasingly contested ground. At the outer edges of credibility are the holocaust deniers who refute the evidence of an historical event which is extensively documented and recalled in horrible detail by survivors.

But other events in history have disappeared from view. Two historical events which have fallen out of sight and the collective, popular memory have been the subject of two new plays, both by women writers, which the RSC have staged to fill the Autumn and Winter months in The Swan Theatre.

First up was Hannah Khalil’s A Museum in Baghdad (left) Set in two distinct time periods, 1926 and 2007, the play was a multi-layered exploration of culture and national identity.Beautifully staged in Erich Whyman’s production, the sands of time literally buried this piece of history by the end of the play.

Closer to home but further away in time Juliet Wilkes Romero’s The Whip is a forensic unearthing of the circumstances around a financial settlement concluded to finally end the trading of slaves in England in 1843. That the debt incurred was only finally repaid in 2014 at an estimated cost in today’s prices of twenty billion pounds makes that collective amnesia around the incident even more remarkable.

Both plays were, by their author’s own admission, extensively researched - and at times the drama ran close to being overwhelmed by the density of the history. But for this reason, both plays repaid more than one viewing.

Repeat visits also provided an opportunity to glimpse how different audiences reacted to the two plays. Judging by interval conversations overheard in the theatre and the reaction on social media - the history behind The Whip has had an easier landing with the Stratford audience than for the drama set in a land and culture more distant.

To be clear, the morally muddled motivations exposed in The Whip seemed to provoke more outrage in the play’s audience not acceptance, or unthinkably approval.

In contrast, A Museum in Baghdad for some seemed to resonate much less - to the point where at each of the three performances we attended there were a small number of audience members who did not return after the interval.

Their reasons for making a dash for home can only be speculated upon but where The Whip had a home grown historical wrong to explore, A Museum in Baghdad spoke, at times literally, in a language most of the audience didn’t understand and about a culture that was thousands of miles from home - even in Victorian times.

Both plays took their audiences on a journey to forgotten episodes in history and while it is perhaps irrelevant to try and assess which episode has more significance historically speaking, the audience in Stratford seemed to decide. They were more at ease with what The Whip told them about their ancestors and, for some, indifferent to the history of other cultures which A Museum in Baghdad revealed - even where there was a heavy imperial hand shaping events.

There are no doubt many more home grown historical forgotten abominations to be retold but, even as the UK turns inwards in a post Brexit world, it is all the more important that the histories of cultures which may seem remote are given the same prominence as the history nearer to home.

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