Much Ado About Nothing Director Iqbal Khan explains his approach and how the production came to be set in modern India.
What can audiences expect?
The production is set in modern Delhi which provides a very interesting lens through which to view the play because of the parallels between early modern England and modern day Delhi: the hierarchical structures are similar; the relationships between masters and their servants are still present; the importance of honour; the centrality of women within that; the idea of bloodlines, and how daughters continue that on - if a daughter is found to be iniquitous the bloodline is tainted. All of these ideas are absolutely still current in modern India.
The other thing is that the formality of engagements and the courtship rituals around them are still very present in India. So, the parallels and the opportunities to explore these aspects in Much Ado in an urgent and modern context make presenting them refreshingly compelling.
What will Meera Syal, Paul Bhattacharjee and the rest of the cast bring?
It's very exciting to have Meera playing Beatrice because she has a great comedian's instinct and technique, but at the same time she is incredibly serious about her work as an actress. I don't think she's often had the opportunity to enjoy and exploit that. She has enormous intelligence, is very generous and tender, and has a healthy sense of irony about herself in the world. All of these things make her very suited to playing Beatrice.
The Beatrice/Benedick subplot is about the complexities of a mature relationship, with a history of buried trauma. The passionate sceptic or the cynic is often the disappointed or heartbroken idealist. I think Paul and Meera capture this quality beautifully.
Paul is intensely political, very iconoclastic as a person, incredibly skilled as an actor, and has played Shakespeare before at the RSC, so brings that authority into the rehearsal room. However, I think he's really enjoying embracing the child-like side of himself, the opportunity to play seriously - and he does it superbly well.
The cast is 21 Asians, from actors who've just graduated to those who have been working in the profession for 50 years. They all bring their different expectations and concerns into the rehearsal room. The journey for us has not just been about discovering the opportunities in a play and clarifying those things, but also about dealing with our collective and individual sense of entitlement to be in that room, to be at the RSC and to be empowered to make radical, personal interventions about the playing of Shakespeare.
Have you worked on a lot of Shakespeare before?
Yes, I did a lot to begin with, both as an actor and a director. I've directed Richard III, Macbeth, The Tempest, Hamlet, Othello. I've also played in productions of Othello, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream etc. I've had a lifelong passion for Shakespeare, and it's the reason I became interested in theatre.
What's it been like working for the RSC?
When I started in this profession, my highest ambition, as an actor or director, was to be at the RSC. To be given the opportunity to do that is extraordinary, and intimidating. What has surprised me is how real the people who work here are! Their concerns are completely human.
The preconception I had was that the RSC was now this massive institutional machine and one's work would always feel constrained, diluted by this. I've only ever encountered an incredible generosity, and the people who work at the RSC have a real desire to do everything that they can to support whatever choice or decision I make about the production. I've always been encouraged to make strong personal choices.
How did this particular production come about?
It started with Michael Boyd approaching Meera to be at the RSC. He suggested a couple of titles she might be interested in. The Taming of the Shrew was a possibility and Much Ado.
Meera had worked with me, and I think she suggested me as a possible director. At the time I was directing a production of Broken Glass in the West End. I think Michael thought it was a wonderful opportunity to get me into the RSC, and for Meera and me to work together on the play. I don't think - and I hope not - that the decision was specifically to do with the fact that I am Asian. At that stage, even though we'd talked about the two plays, we hadn't decided which one. We eventually agreed on Much Ado.
As the production was going to be part of the World Shakespeare Festival, Michael suggested that we might look at placing the play in an Indian context. Initially, my heart sank, because the idea of doing something exotic, for me, is anathema. And the idea of setting it in any kind of historical Indian context felt, to me, that I'd be forced to comment on colonial rule.
My feelings about Shakespeare generally are that I will do everything I can to make it feel as urgent and contemporary as possible. So the more I thought about it, the more I felt modern India, particularly Northern India and Delhi, which is a place of transition, would provide a tremendously compelling way into the play.
Have you worked with the production's composer, Niraj Chag, before?
Niraj worked on the original production of Rafta Rafta, but I wasn't directing that, I was the staff director, and then I directed it on tour. But we're friends and I'm very aware of his work, and I've been very keen for us to work together.
What I'm excited about with Niraj is that he's excited about challenging any casual notion of what it is to be Indian now. So, he has put together a live band, comprising modern instrumentation, vocalists as well as more classical Indian instruments.
You mentioned that you were an actor before becoming a director.
I trained as an actor, and started out as an actor, but I very quickly started my own company, acting and directing. I'm not sure the world was quite ready for the first Asian Kenneth Branagh! More and more recently I've had back to back directing jobs, although that doesn't mean I wouldn't or don't want to act again.
Photo: Iqbal Khan in rehearsal, by Keith Pattison.