Let me take you back to the turn of the century.
Bradford, the outskirts of the city, a young man is knocking on the door of a theatre. It’s taken him some considerable time to muster the courage to knock on this door. He knows that there is a weekly meeting and he has decided, after thinking about it long and hard, that he wants in. The trouble is that nobody can hear this shy young man’s gentle knocking on the door over the cacophony inside.
Asif Khan turns and walks away, his hopes of joining a drama group at Bradford’s Theatre in the Mill, dashed.
These days if Khan is involved in a door being knocked upon in a theatre, he is most likely to be on the inside of the building and the knocking could easily be a fan coming to see him at a performance in one of his lead roles with the RSC. It might even be the National, where he has been working this week, or could even be one of the two plays Khan has written and that are being shared with the world next week, one with leading theatre company Rifco and one at the Bradford Literature Festival.
Khan’s story is a remarkable one. Anyone with an interest in British theatre might have seen his smiling, impressively bearded face from any number of national newspaper pages advertising a new version of Moliere’s Tartuffe at the Royal Shakespeare Company over the past 12 months. The magnificent (false) beard was donned by Khan from September last year to February this year and it’s fair to say it was well received. It was also remarkable to see an Asian lead in an updating of a classic French satire at the most English of institutions, the RSC.
Khan has spent much of his career being something of a trailblazer.
While at school at Salts Grammar in Baildon, the shy Khan, a young man lacking in confidence, found his voice in drama classes and it was there someone suggested he look into the weekly meetings at Theatre in the Mill.
“I stood outside, knocking on the door and I could hear the voices inside, but no-one could hear me. It took a lot for me to go and knock on the door, so after that I just thought that maybe it wasn’t for me,” says Khan.
Fortunately, he went back during the daytime and met the director of the theatre at the time, Andrew Loretto, and was warmly welcomed into the group. The group went on to create work with the Bradford-based Asian Theatre School, then led by Madani Younis, the man who would go on to become artistic director at the Bush Theatre and now London’s Southbank.
“Meeting Madani, when he became the leader at Asian Theatre School was when things really took off,” says Khan.
Not to play to stereotypes,
but Khan’s growing passion for drama should probably have stayed just that: a passion, a hobby, something he did on the side. Muslim boys from Bradford don’t go into acting.
So he didn’t. He studied for a degree at Bradford Uni in Electronic Imaging and Media Communications. Fortunately Theatre in the Mill is based within the Bradford University campus, so Khan did a lot of acting while also studying – and managed to pick up an agent in Manchester.
While it wasn’t exactly a traditional route to follow, he realised he couldn’t ignore the call once he’d graduated and applied to drama school under the advice of several people around him.
“I remember a director saying that I should go to drama school and I was really offended. Like he was telling me I wasn’t good enough or something,” says Khan.
He was good enough to get into RADA, one of the leading acting schools maybe in the world.
His first job out of drama school? Mixed Up North, directed by Max Stafford Clarke, the man who directed the premiere of Rita, Sue and Bob Too.
From there, Khan has kept up an impressive and steady workload, but there have been stand out performances in the one man show Love, Bombs and Apples, which has played around the world, in The Hypocrite, a Richard Bean world premiere for Hull Truck and the RSC and that lead role in Tartuffe.
What makes Khan’s story even more impressive is not just that here is an actor who is steadily building up a body of work, it turns out he’s a pretty impressive writer, too. In 2014 he put pen to paper. “As an actor you have those times where work isn’t coming in, so you have to find something to keep you occupied,” he says.
“I wanted to write something that was a response to how Muslims are seen in the world and how they are talked about, and I wanted to present something different.” That different narrative became Combustion, which played at the Bradford Literature Festival in 2018 after a successful run around the country.
He’s now making a successful return to BLF with a new play, this time for the National Youth Theatre. Imaam Imraan is directed by National Theatre and RSC director Iqbal Khan and tells the story of a Bradford actor and soap star returning to his roots in the North.
At the same time, his other new play, Jamil’s Legendary Stag Night is about to have a staged reading by Rifco theatre company.
“A lot of people ask me if I’ve got some sort of machine that takes me into a different time warp or something, but things are happening at the same time as the result of a lot of work that’s gone on in the past,” he says.
And it all began with a knock on that Bradford theatre door.