Iqbal Khan

Postcolonial Shakespearean Voices in Pakistan, India, and the UK

 

Interview audio

Published on 26 September 2023. 

 

Iqbal Khan, a Indian British man, wearing a black rimmed had and blue scarf.

Iqbal Khan

Jyostna Singh, a Brown woman of Indian descent, photographed from the shoulders up. She is wearing eyeglasses, a green blouse, and a green beaded necklace.

Jyotsna Singh

 

Interview transcript

Introduction

Amrita Dhar

Hello and welcome. My name is Amrita Dhar, and I am the Director of the project, Shakespeare in the “Post”colonies, which is hosting a series of interviews with postcolonial Shakespeareans from around the world.

In today’s conversation, our invited collaborator Professor Jyotsna Singh of Michigan State University interviews the British theatre director Iqbal Khan.

Conversation

Jyotsna Singh 

Hello, everyone. I’m Professor Jyotsna Singh from Michigan State University where I teach in the English department—Shakespeare, Renaissance studies, Global Renaissance—and I am really delighted to introduce to you Mr. Iqbal Khan, who is a very famous director, artist, writer, actor from Britain, and globally. A lot of his bio will come out, but I think just briefly: he has worked extensively with the Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as directing for opera and classical music. His credit includes a brilliant Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth. He has also directed Shakespeare in The Bowl in Los Angeles, he has directed in Paris, Japan, and also delivered lectures. Most recently, he was the director of the magnificent [Opening Ceremony of the 2022] Commonwealth Games. My own work has been very much informed by Iqbal’s kind of boundary crossings. I think we both belong, in a sense, to a boundary-crossing world.   

So, I’ll start with a sort of general question, and we can kind of flesh out. Related to the project of “Shakespeare in the ‘Post’Colonies” is, you have, you are and have been a person of South-Asian descent and a theatre practitioner within the very central part of English, British theatre and theatre globally. What was it like to inhabit the world, a world that today claims to be post-colonial and claims to be the modern Britain? So just your thoughts on that.  

Iqbal Khan 

Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, that’s a very complicated question, isn’t it? Because it, it makes me think about whether we all agree what “post-colonial” is, and what is “colonial.” I think that’s framed my life’s work and living within this community of artists, has been this development of my relationship to the mainstream, as it were, the colonizing force, that, that kind of gatekeeps the profession. I suppose at the beginning, I very much felt like I needed to qualify, because there was a certain kind of frame that allowed you to be valued in an appropriate way. Then as my confidence has grown, and my name has grown, I’ve felt more and more able to kind of, as it were, challenge the way these things have been historically framed and historically valued. So yeah, so I feel freer, much freer now to have the sorts of conversations that I want to have with my work, and I feel like the world is also much more receptive to those sorts of investigations.  

Jyotsna Singh 

Okay. I’ll just follow up on this that, you know, one of the things, you know, I sort of personally find very impressive about your career is the early choices you made, not joining “ethnic companies,” or not joining groups. So, that was a kind of conscious choice when you weren’t confident. You didn’t know where your work was going, but you did make those choices. And I’ve always found that very interesting.

Iqbal Khan

Then…

Jyotsna Singh

I don’t know if you want to briefly reflect on that.  

Iqbal Khan 

Yeah, I suppose, briefly, that the thing is, I suppose it was a political act at the beginning. But, but it’s partly to do, to do with how I fell in love with this art form and this work. I, from a very early age, was reading Dickens, I was reading the greats of the Western literature, I was reading the Russians. We didn’t have a lot of money. So, I was, I was watching theatre on the screen, and opera on the screen. None of the kind of excluding factors of these art forms affected me, because it didn’t cost anything to watch stuff on TV or to read it at home and to play it at home with my brothers. So, all of that felt completely available to me, and I suppose my confidence, or my sense of ownership of it, is rooted in the fact that my first engagements with it were my own, weren’t given to me by anyone. I took it and enjoyed it in the way that I wanted to enjoy it. And that voice inside me that loves it, that feels like I have something important to say about it, has always been there.   

When I started to engage professionally with the work, and encountered a very different kind of opposition, a very different kind of gaze, that was a dislocation that I really needed to challenge and had to find a way to sustain my confidence in myself. And that took years to strengthen. But, when I started in the profession as an actor, and also as a director, I did the stuff that I loved. As an actor, I thought I was best in the classical sphere [laughs]. As a director, I loved Genet, I, I loved Ionesco, the absurdists, Beckett, and Shakespeare, obviously, and Chekhov. That was the work that I was drawn to as an artist from the very beginning, and those ethnic companies that you talk about were doing those plays in the same way, and there was always an ethnic lens, as it were, that they were interpreting these things through. It was very important to me from the very beginning that I was recognized as a director and an actor, not as a British-Asian actor and director. So, I felt like I needed to play in their playing field, and compete according to their systems, and to win, as it were, in that context. That instinctively felt like a very important thing to do for me from the very beginning, to persuade myself that I had what it takes to succeed.  

Jyotsna Singh 

Thank you very much. In your home, there was some experience of the South Asian diaspora that introduced you to all these works unmediated. Nobody told you about them, they were available to you. So maybe for our listeners, it might be interesting if you share some of that.

Iqbal Khan 

Well, I suppose the two dominant things for me were, one, the oral tradition that I grew up with. Which is my mother, my uncle, my aunties telling extraordinary stories of home beyond these borders in, in Britain. They were always mythic stories. My father died when I was very, very young. He sort of acquired this heroic dimension in all these stories. Felt like we were, we had this Arthurian [laughs] destiny to sort of follow in this great man’s footsteps. And their stories were told as performances: incredible language, and impersonation [laughs] of these various voices and things. So, that joy was always there. They would sing, and there were the rituals that came with all of that. Like when I was first shaved, my uncle sang when I was shaved. There’s a ritual around all of that, this coming-of-age ritual. So, there was that context, which I think is really significant: this poetic oral tradition, muscular tradition.   

Then my brother, my second eldest brother, was discovering the various art forms that were available to him. He was bringing home stuff from the library, literatures and music ranging from Bob Dylan to opera, Pink Floyd, reading Shakespeare, reading Dickens. He would come home, and he would read these things to us and play these things to us. I was seven, eight, and just getting all of this stuff and riding on his enthusiasm. He hadn’t studied in any of this. He was just soaking it up. And that was incredibly thrilling, because he really was inspirational. He would talk about mathematics and physics in the same way as he would talk about classical music, or Shakespeare, or, um, Dracula or Frankenstein. We would read these things. All of this stuff was read out loud, and we would all take bits and pieces, and we would all talk about them into the early hours. So, there was both a critical engagement with it, and a kind of animal, erotic engagement with it as well. So, I suppose, from that point of view, I was very lucky not to have the taint of the colonial valuing system there. We just had this, as, as you say, unmediated interaction with all this great, great work.  

Jyotsna Singh 

I think this is really wonderful and really important. What I find fascinating is that there was a cross-pollination between stories from home…

Iqbal Khan

Hm…

Jyotsna Singh

… and songs, and music, and the great literary works and the opera of the West, which means there is a category of affective art and literature that shouldn’t always be ideologically flattened. I think that’s what I have learned from my conversations in my work with you. So, you’re telling us a different story of diaspora upbringing. You’re not telling us a story of victimhood and politics, but you’re telling us a story of accessing art of all kinds through this wonderful home life.  

Iqbal Khan 

Yeah, that’s very good. That narrative of historical injustice, historical trauma, was there, we certainly lived that here, and we heard about it. But actually, my mother in particular was a very, very poetic creature. She did not victimize herself, and certainly didn’t victimize us. In fact, she did the opposite: she made us feel like we were we were princes-in-waiting. And the world was available to us. And that’s how she would talk about my father and his experiences, and their experiences growing up. And it felt like it wasn’t just a Pakistani lens. It felt like the Arabian Nights. What was very clear to me then, and I didn’t have the language for it then, was that they contain multitudes. And my brother’s attachment to all of this stuff, with the various art forms that he was engaging with was, again, there was no hierarchy of, of art. It was, like I said, Charlie Pride, Don Williams, Pink Floyd, the operas of Verdi and Wagner. They were, it was, all available to us. This sense of being multivalent, having lots of voices that make up who we are, different voices, inscribed by our ancestors, and those that are available to us here, it felt like it was all feeding us and told truths about us…

Jyotsna Singh

Right.

Iqbal Khan

… that were beyond the specifics of our ethnic heritage. 

Jyotsna Singh 

Of course, you were acknowledging colonial history. But you were also laying claims to European and British culture on your own terms. Different people can claim art as their own.

Iqbal Khan

Mm.

Jyotsna Singh

It doesn’t have to be controlled. I think that’s to me, also a very, very important and interesting part of your story.  I think moving maybe a little bigger within the British culture, since you taught many classes, you lectured, you had access to a lot of young people over the years. In your experience, have you found Shakespeare useful in some ways of decolonizing a kind of standard worldview or the curriculum? Or the sort of Britishness…?  

Iqbal Khan 

Oh, God, yes. So, why I think that phrase is useful is if we’re talking about changing the centre of gravity of how we engage with things. So decolonizing the curriculum for me is not about erasing certain voices or certain art forms or certain works in favour of others. It’s about including those that haven’t been historically available. I suppose that’s been very important to me. And Shakespeare, profoundly, is about complicating experiences. Shakespeare’s plays are so multi voiced, multi-perspective-wise. There’s no stable or authoritative perspective in those plays, and so they’re incredibly useful at just opening out experience and talking about open experiences, complicating nuanced investigations of different kinds of truths. And that’s always been the thing that excited me most about these works is that I think if we appropriate them in the ways we want to, they can always bear riches for all of us, wherever our experiences are. Whenever I’ve engaged with young people, I’ve always found that there’s always a way into them that is urgent to them, that is urgent to their experience, their context. Which is, I suppose an index of any great work of art, is that it’s always open, it’s always susceptible to very many different ways into them.  

Jyotsna Singh 

What I’m getting from your very articulate formulation is that we have to make it a bigger tent. So, we have to include people, so they can be Shakespeare, and they can be Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and everything can be together. Because a lot of contemporary ideas of decolonizing often means, who do we get rid of, and who do we add? And I think in your vision, which again, is very important for the listeners, and for me, personally, is it’s about inclusion, but in a big-tent way. 

Iqbal Khan   

Yeah. And in a way, I suppose, the challenge of that is that it challenges traditionally accepted points of view, or authoritative points of view. So, it makes certain people who have historically had ownership of the work, it challenges that ownership. So, yes, I can understand how it makes people very, very uncomfortable. But I think that’s a very, very healthy thing, both for them and for the works themselves that benefit from opening them out to other gazes.  

Jyotsna Singh  

Sure. Yeah, exactly. People would always see your work in some ways as political. Then, what do you see the role of ideology in art?

Iqbal Khan 

I balk at the word ideology because it has the resonances of a fixed tenant of belief. And there’s nothing fixed about anything that motivates my work. Everything for me is provisional. I’m constantly learning and challenging the paradigms that form my understanding of the world. But “political,” I am completely unafraid to use that word about my work. And I use that not just in a kind of domestic, personal sense, but also in a wider sociological sense. I think all of these plays, particularly Shakespeare’s works, yes, are incredible and surprising human dramas. But they’re also extraordinary and subversive political dramas. And I always try and find a way in, try and find the surprising thing that they’re doing, particularly in the present context. And that changes for me whenever I go back to these works, and whenever I have the privilege of working on any one of them. I might have historically had a certain perception of things. But then when I look at them again, now, today, all of that’s shifted again. Because I’ve shifted and the world’s shifted, and they always shift with me. I think it’s very important not to be afraid to get into the political with these plays, because they examine these things profoundly. In all of my productions, there’s always a very profound and serious political dimension to what I’m trying to do with these plays.

Jyotsna Singh 

That’s really, really important and brilliant, because I think you make a very clear distinction between political and ideological. 

Iqbal Khan 

Yeah. That’s absolutely vital, and I’m delighted you’re underlining that, because part of the reason why I love working in the theatre, and I love rehearsal rooms, is because any perception, perspective that I might have had before I started work with, with others in that room, gets challenged. And we always as a group come out, I hope, moved, changed. Our understanding of things has profoundly shifted. Because, for me, it’s very important whether there are 23 people or four people in that room, that I give each one of them the space and freedom to talk in the way they want to about the work and their own experience and how they refract the play through their experience. And that will always challenge and develop our thinking about things. For me, that’s one of the most important aspects of theatre. It is unstable, you do change your mind about things, but you do come out of it shifted in your thinking. And what you hope is that you create an experience for audiences that shift them, that surprise them. That they might love, say, a Hamlet, because let’s say that they think the Hamlet is about a demagogue, as it were, and it’s a lone kind of voice in Hamlet that is challenging, that is more anarchic, and that the conversation is about that. And then you can come back to it, and you can go, “Well, maybe Claudius is a very good leader, politically much more skillful than Hamlet. And but for how he acquired his position, he might have been an extraordinarily perceptive and nuanced leader. Is Hamlet a great politician? He might be a great philosopher, but would he have been a great leader?” You see, I’m asking something that I think is quite a kind of subversive question like that might change completely how you might view that play.  

Jyotsna Singh  

Great, thank you. One thing I’d just like to say, as we all know, Shakespeare didn’t like Puritans.   

Iqbal Khan  

No, no, exactly. [laughs] 

Jyotsna Singh  

You know, I always tell students he didn’t like Puritans. So, we can see he wasn’t for one single view. So finally, I think your most recent success was the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, which is your hometown, I think, if you would call it. The displays and the choreography—if you wanted to briefly share with us your experience and what it meant, especially because it was in Birmingham, what it meant for the South Asian community, for you, just in any way…

Iqbal Khan 

It’s an overwhelming responsibility to have to do something that plays to 30,000 people live and then potentially a billion-and-a-half worldwide. And to find a way to both find something to celebrate in the Commonwealth idea while not ignoring the tensions and the challenges from the past. And to celebrate Birmingham, just to celebrate this place. To balance all of these things. And again, you know, for me, an authentic celebration does not ignore the challenges that have existed in a, in a place or with an idea like, like the “Commonwealth.” And so, I wanted to try and find a way to tell a story, to rather than make it a series of, kind of, performances, kind of variety show, I wanted to do what I do as a theatre practitioner, which is tell a kind of story of parables, and through that parable, to explore a lot of issues. And, you know, one of those issues is the “Commonwealth” is a great aspiration, but it’s never been a reality. [laughs] Is it an aspiration worth celebrating? And my contention is that it is, and that we’re moving in the right direction. That Birmingham is a great Commonwealth city now. But again, it’s had a challenging past. But the drama of the influence of all these different voices that have come from the Commonwealth. I am a child of the Commonwealth. There are many others like me and in Birmingham. And to tell our story, to dramatize how this place has been enriched, maybe sometimes through struggle, but has been enriched by our influence, feels to me like a very, very important thing to do. And to find the symbols that can convey that. So, something like the bull, for instance, as a symbol of historical oppression, that once its armor is stripped, and we get to a more vulnerable place with it, that actually, we find a greater strength in the symbol of the bull. That symbol that at the beginning is terrifying, but that becomes a symbol of light, the symbol of love, the symbol of inclusion, by the end. And to find a way to feature the communities that have made this place up.

 

 

 

So, in my case, you know, there’s the South Asian community. There’s at least a 50-60 year history of migration, serious migration to this place. But it’s not always been straightforward. The “Rivers of Blood” speech by Enoch Powell was a, a call to be wary of further integration. Because, you know Enoch’s, Powell’s formulation was that they would inevitably result in rivers of blood, further integration. Now, thankfully, that hasn’t happened, but those formulations still exist. So, it wasn’t just a historical exercise. These are important truths to reinforce now, I think. I was trying to do all of that, just to find the joy authentically.  

Jyotsna Singh 

I think it did definitely succeed. I saw parts of the Commonwealth Games when I was in India…

Iqbal Khan

Oh, okay.

Jyotsna Singh

…and I could see the reaction there was very positive.  

Since we sort of began with Shakespeare, let’s end with Shakespeare. You can refer to some particular plays or moments. I loved your Othello. I worked on Much Ado. Looking back, is some Shakespeare play or moment really memorable, something that was a kind of game changer for you? 

Iqbal Khan 

I mean, Othello has been a play that has, sort of, followed me throughout my life. It was one of the first Shakespeare plays I did in the professional context. I mean, I played Othello before I directed Othello. And I remember when I first played him, I played him in a company of Oxbridge-educated white actors who all spoke with a certain kind of voice that immediately made me feel like I was smaller than I was. It was a real challenge for me, in that production, to value what I was doing. Eventually I did, but it was a real struggle to get away from the sense of that inherited authoritative voice in this work.

When I came to direct it for the first time in Leicester, in a studio production just after 9/11, I set it in a kind of aesthetic that was like ground zero. I was using it to look directly at what was going on in the world at the moment. I also did it with a handful of actors. So, I reduced the playing time to about an hour and a half, with six actors. I wanted to sort of throw away the usual kind of binaries that are explored in that play. It was a company of South Asian actors with a Black actor playing Othello, and a white actress playing Emilia. So immediately, you’re king of “othering” people in different ways. There are different kinds of Asians who were playing the different parts. I was looking at what kind of Asian can play Iago and Cassio. And what gives them different class statuses, as it were. Emilia is an “other” in this context, in our context. There’s enormous racism in the Asian community against Black people. So, I wanted to, kind of, explore that. Which is something that I had experienced very much growing up. So, it, it became a way for me to really explore all of these things. I knew that young people from schools in Coventry and Leicester and Birmingham were coming to see this. Asian kids, teenagers. And I wanted them to feel like I was talking about the world that they were living in.  

Subsequently, when I did it at the RSC, I did similar kinds of experiments with it on a bigger scale where I basically cast lago as a different kind of Black man to Othello.

 

Marketing poster for the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2015 production of Othello, directed by Iqbal Khan.

Poster for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Othello, directed by Iqbal Khan, 2015.

 

Jyotsna Singh

Mm.

Iqbal Khan

Again, to challenge this idea that Iago is simply a protofascist. I was more interested in what he incited in others, the racism that Iago incited in others, than his own particular racism.

 

 

 

The power of his rhetoric and the fractures in our world that mean that people are susceptible to certain kinds of rhetoric. It feels to me like now, that’s even more relevant than it was in 2015 when I did that production. So, again, that was a game-changing production in terms of doing it at the RSC and it being embraced and being recognized more broadly in, in the mainstream media. It’s a consistent exploration that has happened throughout my life with that play in particular. I’ve tried to do that with every single play that I’ve done.

And it’s not always the “ethnic” thing that I’m doing or, you know, the racial conversation. There’s almost always some kind of political conversation component to what I’m doing. So, in Antony and Cleopatra, it was the fundamental conversation around where the capital of the world is going to be. Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra sets up a dynamic in that play, which is a challenge to: is the capital of the world going to be in Rome, or is it going to be in Egypt, in Alexandria? And the world would be very different if Antony and Cleopatra had won that debate.   

 

 

And similarly with Much Ado, setting it in modern Delhi, and looking at the different kinds of relationships to women, the different kinds of experiences of women in India, the hierarchical and the ancient sense of what a, what a woman is, but also in modern India, modern women having this very bifurcated sense of agency. The fact that all conversations in front of servants… The servants are invisible, so they hear and see everything. Which is very useful in that play. So, I’m always trying to tease out of the context the things that are important about these plays in the world, at the moment. 

 

 

Jyotsna Singh   

Maybe tell us a little bit more about your projects in hand. What are you thinking of? What are you looking ahead? Is Shakespeare figure in it? What are some of the things, if you can share with us at this time…?  

Iqbal Khan 

There are things that I might be doing… The next project that I’m doing is I’m re-staging the Tartuffe that I did at the RSC. And this Tartuffe was a development of, or an adaptation of it, that is set in modern Birmingham in the Pakistani community, the Islamic community, and worked incredibly well at the RSC, in the Swan.

 

 

It’s quite a dangerous play and is particularly dangerous if the religious debate or the context is on a knife edge. It’s funnier, but it’s also more meaningful, and the satire has more resonance, if that’s the case. We were very careful when, when we developed it. It seems to me with Molière, what he’s doing is he’s not critiquing religion as such, he is critiquing the credulity of people to agents of religion. That feels like a very important conversation to have at the moment. And so, our version of the play has, and this is very important—there is no homogenous Muslim voice or experience or community, that there are many, many different kinds of Islam represented in our version, and, actually, celebrated in that version. So, I’m delighted to be able to stage it now in Birmingham, to share it with that audience, and to develop it, because when I revisited, the world has moved, and I’m really excited to kind of see how.  

Jyotsna Singh 

I would like to share with the audience—since I saw that play, I especially went to RSC, and as a Punjabi, I, I thought what was fascinating, and I wanted to share with the audience—that the satire worked internally. They were all satirizing each other. Again, this was political, but not ideological. And what I loved was it had in the play, very old Punjabi songs that you don’t hear anymore. So, you can imagine the resonance for the South Asians. I just loved the play on the level of my own experiences. And the satire was very critical of credulous people.

Iqbal Khan

Yes.

Jyotsna Singh

But it didn’t make Muslims feel less.

Iqbal Khan

No.

Jyotsna Singh

I think that was a very fine line. I’m really glad you’re doing it again, and I hope there’ll be more chances for you to talk about. That is the kind of multiculturalism we need…

Iqbal Khan

Yeah, yeah.

Jyotsna Singh

… which is political and edgy but doesn’t put down people.  

Iqbal Khan 

And ultimately—I think this is very important for me—is compassionate. I think every project I do, I have to find in it what’s beautiful about human beings. What is it celebrating about the way we are? So, what’s at threat about those things, which I think are fragile and beautiful about the way we interact with each other? How our societies are susceptible to rupture. Because it’s very important to me that, no matter how much I challenge, no matter how subversive the thing I do is, that ultimately there has to be some hope, some light leaking in, some sense of that which we can celebrate, that which we can aspire to.    

Jyotsna Singh 

Right. And I think in that play, the grandmother was the most… 

Iqbal Khan 

Yes. 

Jyotsna Singh 

I mean, the humanity of the world was in her. She didn’t hesitate to express her views, her opinions. I think she was an amazingly humane figure.  

Iqbal Khan 

I mean, it’s very interesting you mentioned her, because one of the things that I discovered with, with that play was that actually, it’s a play that underneath it, on a human level, it’s about parenting.

Jyotsna Singh

Yeah.

Iqbal Khan

It’s about the absence of the mother. The father has remarried, this new wife has not been accepted by anyone. Basically, the cleaner is mothering the children. And into that absence comes Tartuffe. When the mother talks about the previous wife, she’s undone by it, because there is a massive absence there.  And so, I suppose the journey of the play is to find the thing that makes everyone commit again to each other, to find that love, to find the thing that lets in this new wife, that reforms the family in a different way. It’s very moving, but I think it’s very important for us when we’re working on these plays, to sort of discover those dynamics underneath and to take that audience on that journey. Otherwise, it’s just making cruel jokes [laughs]. And that’s not enough, I think. I think we can do more than that.  

 

 

Jyotsna Singh 

That is what is needed. You don’t look for things. You know, in some ways things also come to you in this organic process of work you do, right? Isn’t there something organic? I’ve always wanted you to explore the Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who, I always say, Faiz is better than Shakespeare.  

Iqbal Khan 

[laughs]

Jyotsna Singh

[laughs]

Iqbal Khan

I know a little bit about Faiz but I certainly don’t know as much as, as anyone, as much as you do…

Jyotsna Singh 

And I’ve actually recently written something more on that. One way to go into it is look at the film Haider…

Iqbal Khan

Hm.

Jyotsna Singh

… which is the, on Hamlet, which is framed by Faiz’s poetry. It’s something people don’t follow. So, Faiz’s poems run through the film. Because one of the things is Faiz was like Shakespeare, he criticized Puritans. And he said, “Who is untainted in this world?” That was his basic motto. So, I feel that if you discovered Faiz, like the stories you heard in, I mean, that generation of your relatives; they all must know Faiz…

 

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, pictured in black and white.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz

 

Iqbal Khan 

Yes, yes.  

Jyotsna Singh 

… you know, who who told you stories. I thought your Macbeth was a very interesting production. At the Globe, which you did. With Ray Fearon. Was amazing. And Tara Fitzgerald. I think that was an amazing production.  

Iqbal Khan 

This is a different conversation, but it’s very interesting how that split the critics at the time, because I mean there were those that absolutely embraced it, and then there were those that found it messy. I think they wanted me to provide concrete answers. Actually, what I was doing was quite the opposite. I was trying to open that play out and have poetic elements in it that I wasn’t going to lock down. So, there was a young child that walked around that stage and came on at the beginning with a blind old man and looked like a child that had just wandered out of the audience. I didn’t explain that child. He moves throughout the piece, and then at the end, ended up on the throne, and only became visible to everyone on stage at that very final moment. Earlier on both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at different points acknowledge the presence of this young child. Macbeth became more and more obsessed with the presence of this child as he became more and more paranoid in the final third of the play. It was just a very interesting way for me to explore the childlessness, or the legacy, of this couple. And again, a massive motor in the play for me. 

But it’s interesting, because I’ve, I’ve always found this with the critical fraternity here, no matter how well the last production has gone, I’m always susceptible to charges of not being able to count to three. So, I had, I had multiple witches, not the three. It was almost as if I hadn’t counted right. Now, the way we created the witches was to formulate them with body parts and create three different puppeted creatures. But there were four or five women that created them. There were those critics that got that, that understood that. And there were those that chose to make that a sticking point for them, and that I couldn’t count to three. I’m always aware, and I try to resist the pressure to qualify to those people, because I feel there’s something dishonest about that critical gaze.   

Jyotsna Singh 

This is maybe another subject for another time: the critical gaze in England has not varied enough. The plays have changed but the critical gaze seems to be somewhere else. I think Macbeth was a very good example, because I saw the production and I read the reviews, but it’s like they don’t get it, often wilfully.

Iqbal Khan

[laughs] Yeah.

Jyotsna Singh

There’s a wilful…I remember the Julius Caesar, somehow they felt that was Roman. I remember the reviews of that, that was Roman. So, maybe Britain needs to call up a different army of reviewers.  

Iqbal Khan 

I think that’s happening, actually. But I think there’s another conversation about the brief that reviewers get and the space they get to… 

Jyotsna Singh  

Sure. 

Iqbal Khan 

…to talk about things, and also just the kind of drama that they need to frame these reviews in. The reviewing world isn’t susceptible to really, kind of, nuanced investigations or productions. I think they’ve got to find the, you know, the buzz headline, the clickbait point of view on the thing. So maybe it’s a game changer, or it’s appalling, and there’s nothing in between. There’s very little nuanced investigation of things.  

Jyotsna Singh 

The last year in the pandemic I haven’t seen, but I think now they’re sometimes fearful of offending.  

Iqbal Khan 

Yeah. Maybe…

Jyotsna Singh 

There’s that, now this, this is the, it’s the other circle. Then, they were asking, you know, can you count to three? But now they’re afraid to say anything.  

Iqbal Khan 

They’re either afraid to say or, or they’re purposely embracing offense. So it, it feels like there’s something else going on. There’s another kind of culture war going on. Mercifully, there are lots of younger reviews coming on the scene, who seem not to be doing that.  

Jyotsna Singh 

Yeah. 

Iqbal Khan 

But the editorial kind of framework seems to be embracing a different kind of cultural war.  

Jyotsna Singh 

Sure, yeah. I mean, it’s all changing by the moment. Maybe let’s end with asking, what is a Shakespeare play that you really want to do, you haven’t done? Or, maybe one or two plays that you would love to do…?

Iqbal Khan 

I mean, there are so many. Lear is a play that I’ve always wanted to do. It’s always the play that’s sort of disturbed me the most, that I find most… It’s not bleak, because I find it profoundly moving. I think there’s enormous compassion in the final third of that play. But it, it does feel the most fractured, the most Beckettian of those plays. It feels to me like it’s very, it’s very appropriate for the world that we live in at the moment.   

But then the other side of that coin is a play like Titus Andronicus, which is this extraordinarily vibrant, daringly funny play, but that’s also about the most appalling and awful atrocities. And just the elan of that. The dramaturgical invention of that play is so exciting to me. And I love the fact that Aaron the Moor is one of the proudest Black men in dramatic literature. [laughs] Yes, he’s “evil,” but actually he doesn’t victimize himself. And he’s very much playing with the white people in that play left, right, and centre. He’s incredibly celebratory of his pigmentation. So yeah, I mean, a play like that.  

And there are so many of the comedies that I think, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, All’s Well That Ends Well. I just think they’re so problematic. I mean, particularly All’s Well. But I love that. I love how unsettling these plays are. Measure for Measure, really unsettling. There’s no end. All’s Well That Ends Well is one of the most ironic titles of a play that you could come across. Nothing ends well in that play. Measure for Measure. These constrained happy endings, I think, are really interesting.  

Jyotsna Singh 

Have you ever thought of doing something with the poetry? Like “Rape of Lucrece” or “Venus and Adonis”? Have those figured in some ways in which you can work with them?  

Iqbal Khan 

Yeah… They’re all really quite stunning pieces, aren’t they? I mean, particularly “Rape of Lucrece”…

Jyotsna Singh

Yeah…

Iqbal Khan

I know that Greg [Doran] did a really interesting production of it…

Jyotsna Singh

Okay…

Iqbal Khan

… with puppets and narration. Anything for me that is looking at agency, looking at, in a post- kind of #MeToo world. These pieces take on a whole other kind of connotation. And so yeah, they do feel very hot, very, very, very dangerous pieces. So yeah, I’d be very, very intrigued and interested in exploring them.   

Jyotsna Singh 

We have a few minutes left. We’re just going to leave you to just chat and reflect and say anything you want…

Iqbal Khan 

I suppose the one thing I’d leave you with at the moment that I’m, I’m sort of thinking about a lot at the moment, is open casting of things. There is a massive pressure at the moment, and a welcome pressure, on the mainstream to represent more widely in terms of who’s directing what experiences, who’s doing the representing of experiences, and what qualifies you to represent those experiences. So, a Black person should be telling the Black person’s story, etc. etc. and I think that pressure is welcome.  However, one of the things that I think is getting lost in all of this is that I think one of the most beautiful things about theatre is that it breaks the one-to-one representation of experience. That it’s not like TV, where everyone looks like what they’re representing. It’s that we can have a Black woman and a younger white man, and she can say that I am this person’s mother, or that I am this person’s sister. And so long as they state it at the beginning, and then they play it  persuasively enough, that we can go on that experience with them. It’s very important that yes, we are able to tell our stories, but that we’re also able and allowed to tell human stories, and to open out representation, to complicate it. Because, you talked about Faiz earlier on, and I don’t know anywhere near as much about Faiz as I should, and that makes me feel less Asian. [laughs]

Jyotsna Singh 

I… [laughs] 

Iqbal Khan 

But I, but I know a hell of a lot about Bob Dylan, and I know a hell of a lot about Milton. So, I am full of those absences and contradictions. And I think that allows me to enter into an experience and to open up that experience to a really broad constituent of people. So, I think it’s important when looking forwards that when we think about who gets to tell what story that we don’t close it down too much, that verisimilitude isn’t what it’s all about. That the poetic element… that we break the one-to-one representation, that theatre is allowed, and continues to be, a poetic medium.  

Jyotsna Singh 

Well, we are coming towards the end of this very illuminating and stimulating conversation and we would like to thank you. I’m just delighted to continue a conversation about all these topics that we love. And so thank you Iqbal, and thanks very much to our listeners.

 

Conclusion

Amrita Dhar

 If you enjoyed this conversation, please subscribe to this podcast, spread the word and leave a review. Do take a look also at our project website at shakespearepostcolonies.osu.edu for materials supplementing this conversation and for further project details. Thank you for listening, and until next time, for the Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies Project, I am Amrita Dhar.