The story of Gertrude Bell has recently taken on bus-like characteristics. Bear with me.
Having gone largely untold for decades, there are currently two feature films and one documentary on the cards. Damien Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Ridley Scott and Angelina Jolie are among the high-profile names to be captivated by the intriguing tale of the Washington-born writer, traveller, administrator, archaeologist and spy who was the only woman holding political power and influence in shaping British imperial policy in the Middle East.
I know. You put it like that and you can’t believe Gertrude, the daughter of a wealthy family of County Durham ironmasters, isn’t ingrained in all our historical knowledge banks – particularly those of us who have grown up in her native North East.
That was certainly how performer and theatre maker, Kate Craddock, felt when she first became aware of her.
“I remember hearing the Great Lives programme on Radio Four and being wowed by the fact this woman was from the North East but no-one had ever made a piece of theatre about her. Simultaneously I became aware of the Gertrude Bell Archive (at Newcastle University), which was digitising all this material – diaries, letters...
“Once you become aware of this story, you can’t put it down. She was an incredible, yet very contradictory and complex person in many ways, who achieved so much at a time when women just didn’t.
“I read one biography, which led me back to the archive to explore the raw materials to help me get a more rounded sense of her.”
Kate began developing the idea and ambition to bring the story to the stage, although she quickly realised it would be quite the undertaking.
“I think one of the reasons that her story hasn’t been tackled on stage before is that because it is so big and challenging. There are so many elements to it. So many layers. It’s not an easy story to tell. Especially in an hour.”
That’s where director Steve Gilroy came in. Having built a reputation for boiling down a mountain of material and serving up a memorable piece of theatre – verbatim productions Motherland and The Prize being two cases in point – Kate thought he would be the perfect person to work with.
“There was such a huge amount of material and I needed to find a way to tell the story theatrically.”
Steve says he understands why people may have turned away from the challenge in the past. “Gertrude was a paradoxical and controversial figure and there are so many angles.”
The GB Project, as the resulting piece became known, “isn’t simply a celebration of Gertrude Bell,” says Steve. “It’s more of a critique I suppose and places her in the wider and historical context of the Middle East.”
Featuring a soundtrack from Newcastle composer, Richard Dawson, the play enjoyed an acclaimed run at Northern Stage’s St Stephen’s venue up at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and begins a three-day run at Live Theatre’s studio space in Newcastle tonight.
Kate, who uses a number of voices from the archives and present-day female politicians to tell Gertrude’s story, says: “People have been really interested and, like me, can’t quite believe she isn’t more widely talked about.”
“The audiences are often surprised to discover that Britain had any involvement in the creation of modern- day Iraq,” adds Steve.
As well as her professional achievements, the play also explores Gertrude’s unconsummated love affair with Major Charles Doughty-Wylie, who was married.
“It’s a fantastic love story, which Kate tells in a really tender way,” says Steve.
“I don’t think she would approve of me telling it at the moment though,” laughs a five months pregnant Kate. “Once we finish at Live, I think I’ll have to wait until after the baby arrives to perform it again.”
Fittingly, the final performance on Saturday will coincide with International Women’s Day.
“I am really thrilled with that,” says Kate. “The show raises so many questions about so many different ideas, but perhaps stronger than any, it seeks to raise awareness about how women’s stories so often remain hidden – both stories of success as well as stories of tragedy – and this is something I really hope audiences who experience the show will take away with them.”
The GB Project plays Live Theatre’s Studio from tonight until Saturday. Tonight, there will be a post-show discussion. Call 0191 232 1232 or visit www.live.org.uk for more information and tickets.