Iqbal Khan

Interview with Iqbal Khan

At the time of the interview, following on from his recent success directing Broken Glass at the Vaudeville Theatre, Iqbal Khan is now directing the world premiere of Ishy Din’s new play Snookered.

Earlier this week Iqbal answered some questions about himself and his career. I hope you enjoy this fascinating interview.

You were born in Birmingham. How did your childhood help define you as a person?
Birmingham in the 70s and 80s was culturally very diverse with a clear division between the white majority and the largely black and Pakistani communities. Although part of a large extended family, I found myself not socialising enormously. My intellectual world was dominated by my older brother. He introduced me to the broadest spectrum of cultural experiences, from Opera, through Dylan to Shakespeare. We never had the money to go to live events, so most of my experiences were through recordings, radio and television. I knew enough to know that Birmingham was not then sympathetic to an international and socially/culturally nuanced sensibility. My appetite for these experiences made me hungry to leave as soon as was possible. Education was my only way out.

At Trinity College Cambridge in your late Iqbal Khanteens you were studying Mathematics and also had desires to be a professional cricketer. What was the motivation for the Mathematics and what are the highlights of your prowess at cricket?
My brothers were all scientists and had always engendered a curiosity and love of beautiful and elegantly expressed ideas. We debated ferociously and pushing the envelope of human knowledge seemed an heroic ambition. Mathematics, literature and music were all things that thrilled me. The most ‘useful’ one to train in seemed Maths at the time. There is always an element of compromise in these decisions – paths denied or deferred.

The cricket was fun and I was naturally talented. Just never spent enough real time training to take it as far as I might. I was selected for pre-season nets for the Blues side before my two years’ struggle with glandular fever and subsequent clinical depression. This disrupted my education to such an extent that I had to shift course and decided on Physics at Imperial College in London.

Coming up to your final year, you took time out from University and decided to return and study drama. What inspired you most to study drama and turn your back on your previous direction?
In brief (!), while suffering with depression I had serious voice problems about which I saw a therapist.  She suggested, after some work, that there was a ‘lovely’ voice in there and that I should do some Drama when I got back to university. This gave me a medical reason to do what I had been intimidated to do, while at Cambridge, despite it being one of my most cherished, though unacknowledged, dreams. The artists I had read about and admired came from a different world to me, seemed a different order of human; entitled, eloquent and poetic creatures. I felt completely excluded from any possible inclusion in their ranks.

Consciously, though, I told myself, I only started drama because it would be good for my voice and self-esteem..!

While at university, your first role on stage was The Priest in Twelfth Night where you became converted to theatre and wanted to direct their next production. You then directed and acted at the Edinburgh Festival. Can you describe your ‘theatrical journey’ during this time?
The experience of being in a rehearsal room where, as I was playing the priest, I had ample time to observe and minimal responsibility, was overwhelming and epiphanic. This was not at this point a question of the talent on display or the material. It was the generosity and playfulness of the process. The innocence of it all. Yet, this was in no way anti-intellectual or lacking in seriousness. Quite the opposite. It was for me the perfect model of how people should behave with one another and a tremendous image of political engagement, political with a small ‘p’ – the dynamics and consequences of our actions, our connection with others.

I have no idea why I felt confident enough to suggest the next play, Pinter’s The Homecoming, for the society and, more, put myself forward as director. Maybe simple, primitive passion. I loved the play. It disturbed me with its seductive violence and destructive humour. And I was fearless. This might have been an index of my ignorance.

This production started at the university and subsequently played at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I went up to the festival for the next two seasons, was president of the drama society, ran festivals of drama at the university, was running a venue at the Edinburgh Festival, while also acting in productions there – the most exciting being a production of Ionesco’s Exit the King (I played King Berenger) that performed in Paris the evening he passed away!

As might be clear, Physics was the last thing on my mind and rather than waste anymore time, I left my course before the final year, to concentrate on making theatre.

After university you didn’t want to be typecast in stereotypical acting roles such as playing a “corner-shop Paki” which was available in TV roles. How hard was it to stick to your principles at the risk of not working?
I trained for a year at the Academy in Whitechapel. The only course I could afford. It was an extraordinary experience. I was part of an acting company that performed in Rep, new plays every three weeks, training half days and rehearsals with professional directors. It gave me a great insight into many genres and ways of working. No time for introspection.

I have always been motivated to work in Theatre and predominantly Classical theatre.  Epic stories, poetically told and muscular ideas properly interrogated. So, my thinking has never been too strategic. I was quite militant at the beginning of my career, making it clear to agents that I wanted to play in big plays at the big companies. This did not endear me, to a profession that has changed enormously in the last ten years. It is not now what it was.

So, I just made my own work. I set up my own company (Liberal Tongue Productions) and scrabbled around for money to put on shows wherever I could.  These were hard times and I often felt like a street fighter, but at the same time, I felt free from any need to please, the only compromise was material and this was often a spur to invention.

But this was work out of the eye of the mainstream and I felt it very hard to get any meetings with those that ran the companies that excited me. I needed another qualification. The decision to do the MA at Middlesex was both to do with this practical consideration and the need to just stop fighting and consider. To consider what I was doing and what others do… to consider why I wanted to do this, to what end.

You were in Tokyo at the Japanese Fellowship for Young Directors in 2005/2006. How did this time help you as a director?
I’d worked in Japan the previous two years and they had been inspiring experiences. The fellowship allowed me to deepen this experience. What I learned as a director is hard to quantify. All human experiences, one hopes, complicate and deepen one’s perception as an artist. To engage with work in another language and different aesthetic norms is valuable. One of the simplest things to communicate was my experience as an actor, working in the development of a new play, playing a lead where all of the other actors spoke in Japanese and I had 50% of my dialogue in Japanese.  What I realised in the playing was that where normally one would take cues from the text, the meaning in the words, I had to find the meaning in the music and breath of the dialogue. I had a paraphrased understanding of it but to catch the moments precisely I lent on the para-linguistic elements in the performances of my colleagues.

The other thing to mention is the experience of ritual in performance. Under-rated. These are not necessarily ancient things. They define rhythms of life, transactions, meaning making, that we employ, perhaps unconsciously, all the time.

What is the main reason for you wanting to direct rather than act?
Opportunity, at the moment. I think I’ve gone through phases where I like to take myself and all the fears that evokes, out of the picture and help others realise something. I love working with incredible actors. I enjoy the challenge. My actor’s sensibility is always useful to me as a director. I do, however, feel the ache to act again now. We will see!

You have directed at the National Theatre where it is considered that productions are “subsidised to experiment”. What type of productions would you most like to see there?
I think the profile of the work at the National is as healthy as I can ever remember it being. I would just love to be a part of its continually evolving narrative. I have never felt as fulfilled as an artist as when I was working there.  Perhaps only working on Broken Glass can compare.

Arthur Miller’s play Broken Glass is about archetypal confrontations and focuses on a Jewish couple, Phillip and Sylvia Gellburg, and is set in America in 1938. How did the story unfold with you getting to direct the play, firstly at The Tricycle and then the Vaudeville Theatre?
It was quite a simple professional engagement. Nick Kent had heard of a production of East Is East I’d just directed at the Birmingham Rep and was interested in me coming to work at the Tricycle. We had a meeting and, after asking me if I knew any great Asian plays I’d like to direct and my sighing a little and suggesting, gently, how much I would love to direct a Miller, particularly Broken Glass, it transpired they were seeking the rights. It just remained for me to convince him that I was the man to direct it and acquire an exciting cast.

The first letter I sent was to Tony Sher. We met for a long lunch at the Dirty Duck in Stratford, where we talked of our separate journeys to this place and how they chimed with the themes in the play. He warmed to me I hope and made the decision to do it at the Tricycle with no firm knowledge of any future life.

I think its subsequent reception and the added allure of Tara Fitzgerald helped persuade the producers to take the enormous risk of transferring such a delicate, complex piece to the West End. I’m eternally grateful to them and Nick for tirelessly working to get the support to make this happen.

Broken Glass is set in 1938, but what message to you think is has for society today?
Not to be complacent about the small injustices we allow in our personal relationships. To be vigilant about our responsibility to others and the consequences of our actions. On a micro level this is the DNA of political engagement. The sort of engagement, on a macro scale, that does not allow atrocities across borders to go unmarked.

Antony Sher who is Jewish, played the role of Phillip Gellburg opposite Tara Fitzgerald in Broken Glass. How do you balance stereotypical casting with who is best for the role?
I always try to cast the best actor, with some consideration of physical compatibility. I believe in the transformative possibilities of great acting. We only begin with a type that, in a great play, evolves, develops and ends by resonating for all types. You need actors that can sound these more profound depths. Ultimately, the most important contribution of drama is in the destruction of any simple classifications audiences have when they walk into our darkened rooms.

I have heard you mention that Arthur Miller is not given enough credit for “experiments in form”. As a director, how do you like to ‘experiment’?
My most important responsibility is to serve the play and make it as urgent, clear and as interesting as I can for an audience. Every time one asks a question of an actor or a designer, a genuine question, one is open to the new, the radical. I start as boldly as I can with these questions and follow the scent of answers as honestly as I can. My aesthetic impulse is for a more poetic form onstage. My instincts usually push me in this direction. But at some point, I have to edit the production, to make sense of the choices, to ensure coherence for an audience.

Experiment is an essential part of a process, only in that you refresh your methods and make strange that which may have become automatic. One hopes in this way to make the final choices that much richer.

You are now on tour in the UK with Snookered, a new play written by Ishy Din and produced by Tamasha. What can you tell us about this play and the cast?
Four British Muslim young men meet-up in a pool hall to remember they’re dead friend. It’s a yearly ritual involving toasts to the departed, a pool tournament and plenty of heavy drinking. This will be the last one.

It is a play about boys learning to become men.  It’s a play about friendships, about complex identities. It feels dangerous and funny. All the people in it feel completely real. I don’t think I’ve seen these characters ever represented as honestly as they are in this play.

The young actors I’ve assembled are extraordinary. They’re young and a little inexperienced but, despite a short rehearsal period, I’m incredibly excited by the possibilities.

Do you have an expected target audience for Snookered and why should people go and see it?
I don’t. I hope young Asians who haven’t seen much theatre will come and see it and identify with it and get excited about the experience of being in a theatre and seeing these stories represented so articulately on stage. But then I hope those who are from completely different backgrounds recognise the parallels with any young man’s struggle to make a significant imprint.  And one hopes we’re enjoyed by anyone who loves great new writing and excitingly staged productions.

Basically, I’d like this diverse audience for any new show that I do. However, this play is an opportunity. An opportunity to bring those into a theatre that have not been before and to represent an experience, for the initiated, that they might not have encountered.

You have a love of classical theatre, particularly Shakespeare and Arthur Miller. Are there any plays that are top of your list of ‘plays to do’?
I’d love to direct Titus Andronicus or Measure for Measure.  Of all Shakespeare’s plays the one I am most moved by and therefore most wary of is King Lear.

After Snookered, what more can we look forward to from you in 2012?
I’m directing Much Ado About Nothing, with Meera Syal as Beatrice, at the RSC and West End in late summer and, beyond that, I might be re-staging a delightful new musical version of The Importance of Being Earnest (we first staged it at the Riverside Studios, with Gyles Brandreth in December 2011).

Many thanks Iqbal for a fabulous interview! We wish you every success with Snookered and with future productions.

Interviewed by Neil Cheesman

Snookered by Ishy Din
In association with Oldham Coliseum Theatre and Bush Theatre
2012 UK Tour: 2th Feb – 5th April
Oldham – Lancaster – Edinburgh
Wolverhampton – Oxford – London – Southampton

Updated 27th November 2015

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  1. What a fabulous interview! So many golden nuggets and insights into Iqbal’s life! Thank you!

  2. Iqbal directed a production of Hamlet I was cast in while studying at Imperial. It is great to learn that he continues to direct and work in theatre.

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