Asian Lite’s Richa Grover meets acclaimed director Iqbal Khan to know more about making Shakespeare plays relevant to the 21st century. Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) have had more than four shows at the Barbican this year, one of which is directed by the dynamic Iqbal Khan.
- In your recent interviews you talk about making Shakespeare accessible to the 21st century audience and your commitment to it can be seen in your works. What according to you are the lacunae that still prevail in this task and what steps do you feel can redress it further?
I think the main points of inertia are to do with casting and the demographic of the audiences who come to see shows. We need to more sensitively develop ongoing relationships with actors and creative artists from diverse backgrounds – to give them sufficient and deepening experience of work in the theatre. We are still relatively new to this and the pool of diverse artists is shallow but deepening. The more those who’ve made the show reflect the range of people that make up our 21st century, the more likely we are to get a broader range of the public attending the performances.
And beyond this, the ‘theatre-going’ habit needs to be developed in new audiences, the palaces of pleasure they enter need to feel welcoming and inclusive. My prime responsibility in this is to ensure that whatever project I’m engaged with as a director, I also make every effort to lead on any participatory and educational activities. Enriching the ‘first contact’ young people have with these great works, the quality of their insight and investment in them, is essential.
- What keeps you passionate in your job and drives you to sustained excellence and what would you say to your younger self now?
Every project I do involves a new exploration, a redefinition of what I do, how I do it and for whom. The thrill of renewing these questions is the definition of what it is to live deeply and passionately with others. I am constantly in awe of the new companies of artists I share journeys with. They always refresh and challenge any complacency I might have.
The world is always changing and throws up its anxieties. I’ve never felt more the urgency and privilege of the act of trying to interrogate and articulate the consoling or provocative visions of the master playwrights, of any age.
The only thing I’d say to my younger self would be to celebrate and develop my voice. It is who I am and continues to develop. Enjoy that. And be careful not to please your masters too closely. The quality of the experience of the audience is key and the integrity and freedom of the conversations in the rehearsal room are golden.
- What’s your mantra of success and what is the source of your inspiration?
I have no mantras. Except to ensure that every job I do has an element of the new in it for me. If I know how to do something on the first day then the rehearsal period is only an exercise in manipulation. This would be the death of the creative joy I have in all my work and my relationships with my colleagues.
- Tell us about Antony & Cleopatra, and the ROME MMXVII Season at Barbican – what can the theatre goers and Shakespeare loyalist expect from the productions they will get to see at Barbican?
The Barbican season promises a glorious series of theatrical productions. Wonderful companies and Cinemascope visions of these undying masterpieces. The productions represent the trajectory of the greatest empire in history, with all the uncomfortable parallels for the modern world.
With Antony & Cleopatra, I am thrilled to have worked with such an accomplished company, particularly my two leads. Their work feels iconic. I have never before seen an intellectually and physically dynamic Cleopatra as the extraordinary Josette Simon, while Tony Byrne is not the faded creature of performance history, but very much Shakespeare’s still intimidatingly potent soldier, fatally out of step with the world and compromised by the overwhelming love between him and the queen. These are great big stories told with economy, variety and verve, with language that will live as long as the word survives.
- How focussed are you on the diversity agenda while casting for your productions and do you think there’s a glass ceiling in theatre?
The make-up of the company is very important to me. BUT what comes first is the play and how it might live in its chosen place and with its particular audience. Whatever I do is led by my response and convictions about the piece and how it might speak best, with maximum clarity to a 21st century audience.
There may still be a glass ceiling in our industry, but even those standing above it regret it… but the solution is subtler than simply promoting more numbers. The most important thing is to get more people interested in the industry and provide the appropriate opportunities and education to allow them to develop the excellence of their work. I am sceptical of headline fixes and speedy initiatives. The issues are systematic and to reconfigure the system will take time.
- What is your advice for budding actors for auditions? What is it the one quality you look for in actors when casting?
My advice to young actors is to read out loud and to engage with the world of political ideas; their job will primarily be to do with the word, the theatre platform as revolutionary action. The fire of new-minted ideas. Be true to your voice in the audition and see it as the first rehearsal with the director.
- What’s been your own favourite production so far from those that you have directed and why?
I have no favourites. They are all precious in so many ways and are all inscribed with certain regrets.
- What’s your own vision for yourself when it comes to your career, where do you see yourself in the next decade?! Is there a bucket list to be achieved?
I am content to live fully engaged with today. I know that might make me strategically weaker in terms of my career, but it’s the most authentic way I’ve found I can live. Today presents enough surprises to keep me stimulated and energised. Speculation about our tomorrows is always freighted with anxiety.
Iqbal Khan’s Antony & Cleopatra plays at the Barbican Centre until 20 January 2018.