Up-and-coming playwright, Iskandar, dives into contemporary themes of identity, shared memory and multiplicity with a compelling openness. His current play, Post-Mortem, showing in Edinburgh from 05th - 26th of August with Assembly Festival, centres on a former couple who meet for the first time since their split at a mutual close friend’s wedding while earlier play, Silently Hoping, examines the cultural concept of British-Asian subjectivity through the eyes of a South-Asian woman identifying as gay.
The latter showed as part of the acclaimed Vault Festival in February of this year, after a shorter version was programmed by The Miniaturists, a curated short-play event presented at the Arcola Theatre: another independent, grass-roots venue. “These latest pieces draw on my own experiences, and come from a place of great vulnerability,” the meditative writer told us. “Silently Hoping was based around the tentative relationship with my father, and the conflict I felt as a mixed-race individual of British-Asian heritage. I wanted to explore what this label meant, and if the two worlds could ever comfortably co-exist.” Though the milieu of multiculturalism is common in Iskandar’s work then, cautious questioning predominantly permeates his unique narratives. Post-Mortem almost explicitly calls attention to this, refusing to give definitive answers despite presenting very personal, provocative territory: “the play, for the most part, is about how we tend to mythologise our own past, and asks whether this itself is good or bad. Both these ex-lovers have their own narrative about why that relationship ended, and are pushed to confront their mismatching ideas of what has happened. A post-mortem itself is an analysis of an event after it has occurred, especially if it was a failure.”
This significantly reflects the socio-political climate, which is characterised by uncertainty, having had traditional identity politics completely shattered. At a time when nothing is as it seems, the best course of action is to reassess presupposed definitions, and their psycho-geographic place in the world. “While my stories may feature race and religion, they are not actually about these topics,” Iskandar elaborated. “I look at intriguing dynamics and the behaviours of people.” Indeed, at once demonstrating the young creative’s aptitude for the craft, what is ejected by way of social artifice is replaced by more authentic, everyday kind of understanding. In Post-Mortem, for example, though stable romance is an illusion, the main characters are still able to appreciate each one other as ‘friendly’ acquaintances: the bond is symbolically reflected through an idiosyncratic corny humour. ‘That’s cold,’ one character comments at one point, to which the second responds: ‘what’s the matter? Feeling Ice-olated?’ It’s the innermost in-joke reserved for two.
Similarly, in Silently Hoping a connection that persists despite the apparent disconnection expands to the entire experience of cosmopolitanism: “though enduring the cultural distance with her father, the protagonist is in a relationship with a Nigerian woman who is also searching for a sense of belonging. The yearning and need to feel loved is universal.” From Biryanis and Ubers to a fight about whether a minority’s perception of an account of racism is in fact racist, these characters too are couched in a refreshingly nuanced language of millennial colour. “I do love character-driven and situational stories,” Iskandar commented, “and believe in collaborative power too. The whole team for Silently Hoping was BAME British, and each person brought their experience organically into the work.” Iskandar emphasised; “there was no machinated timely agenda. Rather, any comment on race relations came of an investment in direct emotional communication.”
And so, as open inwardly as he is with the wider concepts, Iskandar’s work beautifully represents a new canonistic phase of the post-modern. One where notions of broken existence are being gradually reconstructed because of an emerging truth: though distressing, the breaking down of ideological barriers has also allowed us to acknowledge similar underlying desires, which can also bring us together. Though there has been a mounting disillusionment, we have also cleared a path to move forward to forge a more reliable, collective order. “The biggest question for the playwright knowing it all, is: will you resolve the tension in the end or not?”
Tell us more on the cultural resonance of your work?
Any story that champions an alternative or underrepresented voice and challenges a dominant narrative automatically has value. Coming from a mixed-cultural heritage, it has especially important for me to write nuanced portrayals. I was actually on a panel discussing this when Silently Hoping was showing at the Vaults. There is definitely a national conversation about identity. But it is a tricky concept to unpack. I also enjoyed portraying a father-daughter relationship on stage as we rarely get to see this interpersonal dynamic.
How useful it is to have labels on sexual and cultural identity?
I’m not sure: the long answer is that labels can be empowering – certain civil rights movements were ordered entirely around this. It can be important in the reclamation of identity. I think it becomes harmful when it is used to predict or dictate what it means to come from a certain background. At the end of the day, experiences are relatable.
What do you look for in a story?
For me, it’s about being in love with it, especially new work! In terms of production, it’s important to have a caring team that will invest in the character or event that’s driving the drama.
What have been some highlight moments for you in the arts?
I am actually a producer too, with a company called Ellandar productions which was set up with my best friend: in that sense, it’s been great working with so many different people on projects. I’ve worked with several different artistic directors, and we make sure to have a 50/50 parity to promote female directors. The relationships I’ve built with people mean a lot to me.
Why do you enjoy collaboration?
A play doesn’t exist until there is collaboration: discussion is integral for me. It makes me a better human being and writer and encourages more rigour with the work. Questioning and interrogation can only lead to a tighter, stronger narratives.
You are an actor too: as vibrant in your trade as your stories. Tell us a bit about your training?
I trained in screen acting as opposed to plays, and spent the first part of my career making short films. I very quickly transitioned into theatre. I felt my way through the industry, landing training with Soho Theatre along the way. I learn by doing, spending a lot of time on sets and in rehearsal rooms.
Finally, who have been some of your greatest contemporary influences?
While I value the theatre canon, it is a canon that has and continues to be championed by a mainstream theatre that is predominately white, able-bodied, and middle class. I’m interested in work of my colleagues and contemporaries who are trying genuinely to diversify our theatre, and promote other voices.