Teacups, a chalk board, microphones, a map – the simple accoutrements of The GB Project, Kate Craddock’s understated solo show tracing her research into and relationship with the eponymous GB. Ostensibly about one woman, this is a research project under the guise of storytelling theatre, an apparent biography that expands slowly into a lucid and heart-felt consideration of, amongst many other things, feminism, role models, history, conflict and social responsibility. Whilst Craddock and the women of Gertrude Bell Archive that she so lovingly and evocatively mimics have great respect for ‘Gerty’, what the Project offers is a remarkably and refreshingly balanced portrayal of a woman ahead of her time and also inexorably constrained within it – neither heroine nor traitor, but a passionate, determined, inspiring and often flawed human being of whom many of us, oddly enough, have never heard.
The GB Project is an odd theatrical work – sprawling across time and place, whilst remaining surprisingly stationary and at times somewhat stifled by the storytelling form. Though the action moves from a neglected blue plaque on a housing estate to a Bedouin tent in the desert, we are not really transported but simply talked to by Craddock, an earnest and dedicated storyteller, if not the most naturally thrilling one. The Project certainly seems like more of a performative lecture than a performance, and there is something satisfying in the clean, straightforward conveyance of information, with brief episodes opening with the date and location much like diary entries, even as it can feel repetitive and often lacking in theatrical inventiveness.
We discover that The GB Project is not just about an inspirational woman – travel writer, archaeologist, gardener. It is also about Gertrude Bell – adventurer, spy, political officer – it is about Great Britain and its exploits in the Middle East. A world traveller turned expert, Bell took up a post as an official in what would become Iraq. She respected and took part in the culture, met with its people and tried to preserve its customs. She also helped install a puppet government and drew the new contentious borders of the troubled region. Craddock, whose own archive (compiled by her father) shows us she marched against the war, is palpably stunned and obviously pained.
History switches briefly to Geography as she shows us a map of Mesopotamia. She draws onto the map, altering the lines of the country. It looks like such a strange and destructive act – childishly possessive, oddly arrogant and of course, it is almost certainly both of those things, a reflection of the boyish swaggering we-know-best attitude of British Colonialism. So there’s a natural connection here – Gertrude Bell drew the new borders of Iraq, borders which have fuelled sectarian violence ever since. Yet there’s something in the staging of the show which means this doesn’t feel as natural as it should – perhaps because Craddock is trying to impose a sensible, ordered narrative when there isn’t one, when the reality of chaos, violence and inhumanity is more difficult to pin down, to turn into a story.
The most affecting moments are those where the Project briefly escapes the bounds of its sometimes tiresome narrative frame, those contemplative asides from the main narrative where Craddock catches herself, and lets the confident storyteller role slip. Whilst she’s an energetic, often awed biographer of the astonishing Bell, Craddock also has her doubts that perhaps she herself is only interested in Bell because she is a woman, then, later, is disappointed in her – because she is a woman. “Maybe she should have had more..compassion..” Craddock hazards, and it’s these uncertainties and confusions that have a more lasting emotional resonance. In one of show’s penultimate episodes, Craddock is in an airport terminal, conjured so perfectly in all its dazzling blandness that as if it’s a descriptive passage written by Bell herself. Cradock watches a news story and briefly, becomes the distraught Iraqi man she sees on screen decrying a car bombing. In that moment, we witness all her incommunicable grief and horror, her unwanted inheritance courtesy of Bell, or of Great Britain, or of simply being a human in a conflict-stricken world.
Perhaps what The GB Project really offers, above all, is less of a political position on Iraq but a radical disruption of any assumptions of what a woman is, or should be. Craddock mimics an American director auditioning actresses for the role of GB – “She should be sexy yet vulnerable..bitchy..caring..stubborn..’ .
Playing the actress, Craddock arranges her features into Bell’s demure, unreadable expression and even as the director imposes various characteristics, this expression does not change, because of course, they are all there at once. Likewise, in the final moments, where the speeches of Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton collage together with Bell’s declamations, it feels less like a war critique, and more like a poignant questioning of, and even a questing for, a modern day Bell, a heroine as fallible, as human, as brave and stubborn as her – one who might also learn from her, and our, mistakes and go on to inspire a new generation.
Kate Craddock, Adrienne Truscott and Amanda Monfrooe in discussion on art, feminism and theatre.