Associate director at the Rep, Iqbal Khan, talks about the joy and stress of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, the ambitious scale of projects happening across Brum and the love for his home city
Iqbal Khan’s triumphant directorship of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony is his ‘biggest success’ to date and certainly the most high profile. More than a billion people across the globe watched the spectacle which Iqbal describes as the ‘ultimate celebration of communities’ that represented the city so brilliantly.
He describes the experience as ‘stressful but a privilege’ as the city has a massive story to tell and that was his dilemma – how to tell the story. He explains: “It’s the youngest, punkest city in Europe. I wanted to change the way this place was seen and represent its communities properly.”
Of everyone’s favourite bovine (sorry Bullring) he adds: “The bull was an incredible piece of engineering and I suppose it was inevitable that people would care about it and take ownership of it. It was never conceived to be around this long, so we’ve had to get extra funding to make changes to keep him long term.” By the way, he could tell me where the bull will reappear, but he’d have to kill me so understandably I didn’t push it.
With just 18 months to pull the show together featuring 2,500 performers, a global pandemic in the run-up and tough restrictions that meant it was a challenge. Meetings were virtual, supply chains were affected, people came down with Covid periodically, but it all came together. There was a hiccup when the bull malfunctioned during the rehearsal which was akin to him ‘having a stroke’ but thankfully he performed on the night.
Last month, Tartuffe at the Rep – where Iqbal is associate director – was also a triumph. Reviews of his adaptation of the Moliere comedy from the 1600s were glowing. Bringing the play to modern-day Pakistani community around Stratford Road was inventive, funny and fresh. The ambitious scale and range of work at the Rep gets Iqbal excited.
His role means he does a number of projects at the Rep while also having freedom to do other things. So, it’s a win-win. Interpreting classics, making work for audiences, broadening theatre’s appeal reaching younger people and developing Birmingham nationally is Iqbal’s goal. And bringing opera to the masses. He says: “I love opera and want to do a lot more. There’s always this perception that it’s elitist, but it shouldn’t be.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Twenty years ago when Iqbal was starting out in theatre as an actor from an ethnic minority, he felt a pressure to give people what they wanted rather than who he was and what he wanted to do. He recalls: “The parts I wanted were classical which alienated agents as they just thought it was not practical. Thankfully, the world has changed and performers who want to, can. There are an enormous number of opportunities now.”
Clearly Covid was tough for any sort of live performance with crippling lockdowns enforced on venues and Iqbal thinks it highlighted the importance of theatre. “It really showed us how fragile the industry is. It’s so important – there’s a holistic human need as well as an economic need.” He also feels it’s necessary to tell urgent stories of alliance in response to Brexit. He says: “It was a defensive decision that came from people feeling vulnerable. We were sort of turning in on ourselves.”
Born and bred in Brum, Iqbal lived away for 30 years. Of the city he says: “It’s not the Birmingham that I grew up in. I enjoy the joyous confusion of the city – its optimism and innocence. During the last 10 to 15 years the pace of change has been exponential, and the spirit is thrilling.”