An Interview with Iskandar Sharazuddin
Post Mortem is currently wowing the Edinburgh Fringe
Hello Iskandar, first things first, where are you from and where are you at, geographically speaking?
Hello! I am from the UK. I was brought up in the West Midlands, but also spent parts of my childhood in Australia and New Zealand. I am mixed-race South East Asian – my father is Bruneian-Pakistani. In short, culturally I am a mix of different places and people. I am currently in London.
Can you tell us about your training in theatre?
Sure, I actually trained very specifically in screen acting. My training in theatre was cumulative over years of working on and making plays. My first work in theatre was in Perth, Western Australia where there is a small, tightknit artistic theatre community which is remarkably friendly and forgiving, as well as a place which produces artists that punch far above their weight. It was a safe place to take risks, make new work, and learn the craft. After that I worked on professional commercial theatre productions, where I learnt a lot about the inner workings of theatre organisations from the perspective of an actor. From there, I feel like I am constantly training. My greatest education came from reading and seeing plays – London is a theatre Mecca. I see about three pieces of theatre a week (most of the year round) and read a lot more.
In a world where you can get entertainment ‘on demand’ , what makes theatre special?
Great question. The short answer is I don’t really know, it just feels very special, but that is hard to qualify, isn’t it? The longer answer after a little thinking is that I believe theatre is special because it is a dialogue, or at least I think good theatre should be a dialogue and when I say dialogue, I mean the conversation that exists between artist and audience. When I write a play, I write with the hope that the audience will fill in the gaps. I believe a play only exists as a play when it is put in front of a live and reactive group of people. That dialogue, that relationship, is special and is fundamental. It is also about agency, as an audience member you are free to watch and engage as you wish, whereas with other art forms someone is quite often directing your gaze, does that make sense? Theatre is also special because it is steeped in tradition and history. A history of sharing stories with one another, of using stories and metaphor to talk about injustices, civil rights, pain, joy, and the entire scope of human emotion. And finally, it is also about being vulnerable. We go to the theatre to experience the greatest pains, the deepest fears, the highest hopes, and to be entertained. All of that requires both an audience and an artist to be vulnerable; to share something in the dark that when the lights come up that will leave everyone impacted and thoughtful, and hopefully a little more human.
You are an award-winning playwright, can you give us the low-down on your laurels?
I won the Tony Crazy Playwriting Award in 2014. It was formerly the Soho Theatre Young Writers Award but was recently renamed in honour of Tony Craze, a playwright and novelist who has had a lasting impact on the culture of supporting new writing in Britain. In 2015 I was long-listed for the Bruntwood Playwriting Prize and have previously been nominated and short listed for other awards such as OffWestEnd.com’s Adopt a Playwright and Old Vic 12.
You’re bringing a play to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe; can you tell us about the show & your personal role?
The play is titled Post-Mortem, which by its definition means: an analysis of an event after it has occurred, especially in order to determine why it was a failure. It is a play about young giddy love, the trauma that outlives it, and what happens when we are confronted with the hard truth that perhaps we haven’t moved on. It is the story of Nancy and Alex who met at seventeen, fell in love, the kind of love that is obsessive, whole-hearted, and knotted together, but then it broke. In this play we meet them ten years later at their best friends’ wedding, where they have to confront conflicting narratives about a shared traumatic event in their lives in order to get through the wedding together as the Maid of Honour and Best Man, respectively. I am a playwright-performer. In this piece I am performing as Alex, I have not acted in my own work since 2011, so this feels like foreign territory to me. I am also co-producing this work with my company Ellandar Productions in conjunction with Jessica Rose McVay Productions.
What is it about performing in front of other people that makes you tick?
I enjoy performing and acting in front of an audience, partly because it is nice to know that these people have invested money and time into coming and seeing your work. They are there to listen to you and give you their undivided attention. There is a power to that and there is no denying it feels great, but in the words of Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility.” I relish having that responsibility as a theatre-maker and as an actor. A responsibility to be sensitive and respectful with the character you’re playing and the emotional journey they are taking, a responsibility to entertain as well as put on stage a human being that is every bit as three-dimensional as a human being sitting in the audience. Lastly, and at the risk of sounding like a cliché, I feel very alive on stage. Being on stage makes me more receptive and perceptive, it helps me to think, listen, and breathe. I am hyper-aware of my surroundings both within the context of the play and within the very real context of the physical space of the theatre.
Your director is Jessica Rose McVay, how is she handling your baby?
With great care and consideration. Jessica is a colleague but also a good friend, we met in 2012 whilst both working on shows in New York and have been talking since then about finding the right piece to collaborate on. Jessica is a woman who approaches the craft of making theatre with zeal and honesty. Jessica has been integral to the development of Post-Mortem. When she came across the play, we, together, took the work, stripped it back and forensically interrogated the piece looking at what it was about, who these characters were, and what the contemporary resonances of the play are. As a playwright-actor I can’t be the “playwright in the room” as I run the risk of being the viewer in the view. As such, I rely heavily on Jessica to note the show and have honest conversations with me about the dramaturgy and narrative, there is a lot of trust involved in our collaboration. Jessica is also a movement director and like me is very interested in the physical language of the play. This iteration of Post-Mortem wouldn’t exist without her input into developing the physicality of the piece. Jessica runs a very democratic rehearsal room and was very generous in providing the right time and space for the work to evolve into what we’re presenting in Edinburgh.
Post-Mortem seems quite a personal play – is there much of your own life experiences in there?
Post-Mortem began life as a different play in 2010 titled The Hill and The Piano. When I look back on the latter play now it is very clear to me that it was a cathartic writing exercise to help me process the end of my first relationship and love. It was overwritten and painfully elegiac. Since 2010 at different intervals I have picked up the piece to redraft, in 2015, I was fascinated with the idea that we, as human beings, have a tendency to mythologise our past and especially events of emotional significance like a formative experience in love, at least that is what I had observed. I was also interested in the malleability of memory and how two people could remember the same event in very different ways, not just emotionally but the actual order of events. I decided to write something new, but started the process by asking the question what is something in my own past that I have a tendency to mythologise, it led me straight to The Hill and The Piano. Hence, Post-Mortem is the product of those thoughts around self-worth and self mythologising, the malleability of memory, and the bones of an old play that was very much material excavated from my personal life. That being said the process of writing Post-Mortem involved deconstructing The Hill and The Piano, and rebuilding it with new foundations. There are echoes of the original play and some theatrical fossils from earlier drafts within the current play, but now it feels a lot further away from me. Alex, doesn’t feel like a representation of me or my experiences but rather a fictional character that has very familiar roots. Likewise the situation in Post-Mortem is a version of events that feel close to a personal experience but exists at a comfortable and necessary distance. I didn’t set out to write autobiographical theatre.
What emotive responses do you expect from the audience?
Empathy. Neither Nancy nor Alex are perfect, in fact they are deeply flawed and in many ways Alex has the tropes of a classical tragic character, specifically a flaw which prevents him from ever being able to fix the situation in front of him. The two characters are embarrassingly human, and I think are deeply relatable as individuals but also as a couple. I expect audiences will be drawn to both Nancy and Alex, at times each one has a conspiratorial moment with the audience where they both feel vulnerable. I think both have been wronged and have wronged the other, in that sense we’re not trying to answer a black and white question about who is right? I expect audiences will be sad at points but leave the theatre with a sense of hope. I would love for audiences to leave and be talking about their first love. Sometimes those experiences can be painful, or overwhelmingly disappointing, or funny, or heart-breaking. I feel we place these relationships on pedestals, or sweep them under rugs, we do our best to forget them, or to glorify them. They are such crucial experiences, integral to our learning, and often can really shape who we become. I think it is important to not mythologise them and remember them as they were, what they taught us, and what we’ve taken from them. Sometimes it is fun to look back, and that is okay, in a world that is constantly looking forward I get lost a lot of the time and have to look back to work out where it is I am going next.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell your play to somebody in the streets of Edinburgh…
Post-Mortem is a love story that starts with an exploding pig heart, comic books, and Dido. It ends with lies, a lot of pain, and death. Come and get stuck in the middle of it! It has poetry, a lot of puns, the Macarena, and a wedding gone wrong.
Assembly George Square Studios
5th – 26th August (10:50)