As A Museum in Baghdad goes into rehearsal, writer Hannah Khalil talks about the emotional journey she's taken with the play so far.
I may as well confess up front – there were tears. Not bad ones – good ones, but tears none the less. I’m Hannah Khalil, the writer of A Museum in Baghdad, and we started rehearsals just the other week, on Monday 8 July in a Clapham rehearsal room, where tens of brilliant humans gathered for the traditional ‘meet and greet’. Not just the creative team but all the excellent production folk as well, and we were all invited to sit in a circle.
Erica Whyman, our director, addresses the gathering – however I can’t tell you what she says because my heart’s racing and I’m trying not to think about the fact all these people are gathered in this one room because of me – well, because of my play… a pretty overwhelming thought. Quickly I realise the drill is to go around the circle introducing ourselves – name and what we do. Simple. Even in my over-excited state I can manage that… But when it gets to me I say, “I’m Hannah, and I’m the writer” and there’s a huge cheer and round of applause and suddenly I’m crying. Oh dear. Already. Not five minutes into the day. One of our lovely team hands me a tissue and I apologise, warning everyone that there may be a lot of this during the weeks and months to come.
I started work on my play about Gertrude Bell and the looting of the Museum of Iraq in Baghdad nine years ago and it’s been a long, thorny journey to get to production - to be honest I doubted whether it would ever actually happen. It’s a strange truth that as a writer you have to manage your own expectations carefully, so think the worst but at the same time hope for the best. But the best rarely happens. So the call from Pippa Hill (Head of Literary) last year to tell me A Museum in Baghdad had been programmed in the Swan was very much the stuff of dreams.
As we sat and listened to the perfect cast (thanks to our diligent casting director Matthew Dewsbury) reading words I wrote, I had to keep pinching myself that this was all real. Same goes for the presentation by our inspired designer Tom Piper outlining some of the ideas for the set and costumes. And peeking into the ‘set box’, which is a mini version of the Swan as it might look for the show, definitely got my pulse racing even faster.
At home time I was very ready for a glass of wine. I stepped onto the busy overground train and checked in on Twitter. There I saw the show poster – a striking image of our actors Emma Fielding and Rendah Heywood rising out of the sand. It took me by surprise and I gasped audibly, tears coming to my eyes yet again. A kind person nearby, thinking I was distressed, asked if I was alright. I smiled at her and said, “I’m fine, thank you – don’t worry, they’re good tears”.
My mum tells me I need to keep my fluids up for the rest of rehearsals or I’m going to get dehydrated. She’s quite right.