Even when there are no dragons to slay, heroes are important. The Bank of England’s recent changing of the guard of historical faces on banknotes, controversial counterparts to Scotland’s images of famous castles, stirred up feeling because of the underlying truths to which it pointed. Female heroes are less likely to emerge, more likely to be submerged, by a history that’s grounded in a firmly male canon of sword-wielding leaders. Kate Craddock’s one woman show unearths the split, fragmented story of Gertrude Bell, an archaeologist,writer, spy and traveller in the Middle East; half inspirational, heart-warming heroine in her North Eastern birthplace, half ambassador/betrayer to the countries she became so deeply enmeshed in.
It’s a journey told through people and memories, starting with her stilted visits to her newly-divorced father’s flat, concrete complexified by a Gertrude Bell memorial plaque. Craddock goes on to seek out the other, more voluntary custodians of Gertrude Bell’s treasures. She stages conversations with her own memories of Tyneside-accented Pat, a gentle and self-deprecating librarian who notes that GB’s adventures are so much wilder than anything she and her colleagues ever get up to, archivists, historians, and a post-doctoral scholar, writing on women and travel without ever venturing further than Paris. These verbatim, regional-accented snippets are spot-on, distinct and charming, like another kind of archive, audio evidence of her trail through paper and sand. Woven together with wonderfully acute observations, context and projected photos, they create a rich sense of the shared, local, female investment that keeps this dead explorer alive at home.
The structure is wittily, neatly managed; a timid foray into Gertrude Bell’s sex-life is book-ended by the more gently sensual offering of china cups of tea and custard creams. Craddock uses dates, emphasised with a step left or right, to mark her symmetrical movements back and forth from past to near-present. The same pieces of documentary evidence are mirrored, first as sweet, slide-show artefacts, then as incriminating evidence, as the analysis of Gertrude Bell’s involvement in the Middle East deepens.
The title seems confusing at first. This piece is about discovering Gertrude Bell, not Great Britain. But as its focus shifts from local to global, we learn that she drew the borders for present-day Iraq, and persuaded tribal leaders to support the British, and helped install a puppet king. The photos show what seems to us a gentle, quaint, china cup-clutching breed of diplomacy, afternoon tea among desert sands. Seen in the context of this diplomacy’s latter-day consequences, they point to a kind of disjunct in colonial self-image; explorers or invaders of territories, guardians or appropriators of cultures. Craddock brings out this disjunct, as the gentle cast of academia and GB’s own cut-glass voice are joined by Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice, whose words use the soft language of conscience and domesticity to justify the unjustifiable invasion of Iraq. By combining the voices past and present, The GB Project builds and gains the power of a political thesis, a passionate through-line through a muddled history.
The GB Project swells from a small, personal engagement to a sprawling trail of people and paper, a huge telescope look at Gertrude Bell’s place among the gentlemen travellers who toyed with and prodded at the Middle East with detached, still lingering entitlement, deposing rulers and redrawing boundaries. Bell is the only woman among men in their sober wool-suited groups, or Lawrence of Arabia horse parties. But as well as drawing attention to her petticoated singularity, Craddock’s piece also finds uniqueness in her humanity, and real love and respect for the leaders and people she won over. Gertrude Bell’s legacy in Iraq, and the National Museum of Iraq she founded, has been sacked and scattered, her diplomacy betrayed. Craddock’s dazzling performance seeks out and brings back the artifacts of her memory, tangible and intangible, and houses them in an intensely personal frame; impossible to forget.