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INTERVIEW: RSC director Iqbal Khan #ArtistInRetreat

n Iqbal Khan pictured during rehearsals for Tartuffe at the RSC in 2018. Below left, the play in performance.
n Iqbal Khan pictured during rehearsals for Tartuffe at the RSC in 2018. Below left, the play in performance.

During the lockdown Herald arts finds out how local creatives are dealing with their downtime. Here director Iqbal Khan. His RSC credits include Tartuffe (2018), Antony and Cleopatra (2017), Othello (2015) and Much Ado About Nothing (2012).

What you do and how you got started?I’m a freelance theatre director. After going down very different paths at university and, early on, contracting a very serious illness, I became clinically depressed. I had lost my way and felt I needed to make a bold decision about how to move forwards. So I auditioned for the university drama society’s production of Twelfth Night. I found myself in a room where everyone was vulnerable and compassionate, where what was most important was what we were creating together and that this was fundamentally informed by all the different experiences and perspectives that we, individually, brought into the room. Great works of the human imagination that both challenged us to realise them and helped make more sense of each other. I was hooked!

I directed the next play and was soon curating a festival and running a venue during the Edinburgh Festival. I left my course and trained first as an actor and then did an MA in theatre directing at Middlesex University. I set up my own company, directed and acted in plays above pubs in London and was eventually awarded a bursary for young directors at Leicester Haymarket. Subsequently, I directed shows while there and around the regions. I was hungry and passionate and was very lucky to have these initial experiences be so encouragingly received.

I’m spending lockdown in London with my wife. We’re both theatre directors and are getting better at being in each other’s worlds, encouraging and challenging, whilst knowing when to allow the other the time to (metaphorically!) roam.

How are you staying connected to the outside world?I suppose the obvious answer is engaging with various news outlets and reading what I can that gives me some sort of perspective on the movement of things out there. I’ve also chatted via Zoom with friends and, professionally, with colleagues. I’ve done a few masterclasses, auditions and rehearsals for various companies. Although, I have also enjoyed to space to read, reflect and unplug from the usual flux of things.

Are you managing to do any work?I regard anything that involves engaging with voices in literature or film and TV as work (while also affording me great pleasure!) I’m very lucky to be in a profession, working as a director, where the most passionate involvement in all the things that give us pleasure, the wisdom and insight of earlier perspectives, embracing any form of sharing that excites – it all feeds any thoughts that go into future work.

Specifically, I have been developing a script with a wonderful young writer from Leeds, holding masterclass auditions for drama schools and developing online product for Box Clever theatre company – an excellent young people’s company I’ve worked with for over 15 years now.

What are the upsides and downsides to being in lockdown?The existential anxiety for the theatre/culture sector and the fears over how it might re-emerge are significant. There are many fragile initiatives that require confident long-term thinking and careful investment. And these are imperilled. I’ve never felt more the need to ensure I can do whatever is possible to encourage radical innovation and to make sure that we see this as a ‘reset’ moment, that we don’t limp away from this and allow ourselves to lose the momentum we have struggled for.

I also just miss the company of other people, particularly those relationships and experiences in a rehearsal room. I miss being surprised, the compassion and, often, the challenging engagement with difference I have always cherished.

However, the chance to stop, to enjoy time in a different way, to be less instrumental in the way I use it, is wonderful. I’ve loved just reading for the joy of the word. Having the time to listen to and properly reflect on my wife’s thoughts on what she’s engaged in. Not reading plays, as such, but just allowing myself the abundant adventure of the new perspective or reacquainting myself with books that had particularly important early affects on me.

Also going for walks with my lovely little dog, Plato!

Do you have any cultural recommendations for keeping entertained during the isolation? Favourite TV binge watch is definitely Succession. It’s just so beautifully written; it has a Shakespearean scope and a wicked sense of play. The cast are absolutely brilliant, with many new to me and the great Brian Cox as good as I’ve ever seen him.

Favourite films recently include Tehran Taboo (shocking in its daring and so nuanced in sharing these range of female experiences). or, on a lighter note, I just watched Three Men and a Baby again, a smart and irresistibly sentimental film - with great performances (Tom Selleck has such surprising nuance and depth! Don’t believe me – see it again!).

Books: Crime and Punishment. Don’t be put off by the size. It’s episodic and each one is glorious. A really compelling, exciting read. It’s written in very accessible language that presents enormous depths of insight. It’s surprisingly funny and so humane.

Music: I’ve been listening to a lot of Kate Tempest and, at the moment, very unusually, Nana Mouskouri (her Live British concert from 1972) I Love the fire, play and eloquence of Kate Tempest. And, Nana? Well, she is more a reassurance. I remember this concert from when I heard it on vinyl when I was very young. It is all beauty, naive, luminous beauty.

Any other tips for not going stir crazy?Oh, I don’t know. I wouldn’t presume. Maybe find a way to exercise? It’s just as important for mental as well as physical health. And be careful of filling your days with tasks.

What is the first thing you’ll do after lockdown?I’d love to say, go to the theatre or a film, a concert – enjoy being part of a communal experience. However, that will have to wait, I fear. Maybe a drink with a friend in a pub garden.

What help would you like to see being given to the arts community?I’d like for the various financial support schemes to be extended until at least October and, perhaps, being developed to be more targeted, so that many who work in our mixed economy are not missed. I’d love to have a vision communicated, a commitment outlined about the shape and ambition for our sector. I’d love for the mental health of artists to be talked about more. There are enormous challenges here, that will have been seriously worsened during this isolation. We need to create a sense that there is hope, a determination to improve and value this industry. That there is hope for our struggle to be rewarded.

What lesson would you hope mankind could learn from the coronavirus catastrophe?I would hope that we learn from this catastrophe what inspired that generation coming out of the Second World War. The ambition to take more responsibility for each other. To cherish our shared goals. To understand that care and solidarity is key in the formation of all our public institutions. To make a world more nimble, less ideological. To understand that we can only be enriched by learning from difference. There is no ‘great’ past, only many ugly and, sometimes, inspired compromises that got us here. Borders were imposed not dreamt. They were contingent. They don’t define great ideas and should not lame our ability to grow, in every sense, as a world community. We should not ‘tolerate’ but celebrate our differences. This pandemic has shown us that we are all profoundly vulnerable. We must not arm ourselves against attack but open ourselves to the generous influence of others.

And, finally, I hope we all learn again the great importance of the ‘live’ experience, the essential need we all have to be with each other.

The RSC’s 2015 production of Othello, directed by Iqbal Khan with Hugh Quarshie as Othello and Lucian Msamati as Iago, pictured, is available to view now via BBC iPlayer.

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