Image credit: Faizal Mustafa Photography
Not many actresses can claim that they’ve played Julius Caesar himself — but for veteran actress Jo Kukathas, no role is too outlandish or farfetched.
“This version of Julius Caesar is like Shakespeare meets West Wing meets House of Cards meets Avengers,” enthuses Kukathas, who goes on to list out the other elements in the SRT’s reimagined version of Julius Caesar: Plotting, scheming, and, as with any juicy Shakespearean drama, killing.
This May, Kukathas brings her sharp wit and commanding presence to the stage once more as the titular Julius Caesar, in the Singapore Repertory Theatre’s latest edition of its signature outdoor production, Shakespeare in the Park.
An addictive tale of greed, intrigue and betrayal set against a modern day political struggle — a timely scenario if we ever saw one — Julius Caesar sees Kukathas is riveted at the centre of the SRT’s most ambitious production yet.
We sit down with Kukathas to talk about the relevance of recreating Caesar as a woman in today’s terse political climate, and what it’s like being at the central plot of a Shakespearean assassination attempt.
What was it like working with SRT again?
It’s been great. I think SRT have assembled a great team. The team is lovely, and the rehearsal room has a positive atmosphere. The director, Guy Unsworth, is super intelligent and funny and knows exactly what he wants. The design work by Richard Kent is stunning, the music and the multi-media is sharp and contemporary, and the play is fast and furious. I can’t wait to see the lighting designer’s work in the park.
How were you cast as Julius Caesar?
SRT messaged and asked me to send an audition tape of any character from Julius Caesar. I did the parts of Cassius and Brutus as I felt quite deeply for these characters — the revolutionary and the romantic idealist — and sent them in. Later, I received a message that director Guy Unsworth wanted to cast me in the role of Julius Caesar. I was surprised, but when I had a Skype interview with him and got to understand how he saw the world of the play for contemporary times, I understood why.
What do you think you bring to this new interpretation of Caesar?
Making Julius Caesar a woman makes the interpretation fresh, and making her a leader in contemporary global politics is also an interesting take. Women as public figures come under a very different of scrutiny and criticism than men. For me, the challenge is to think about the differences and similarities in the way men and women handle power. Shakespeare’s text is written in one way for a man, but we also have to remember that when Shakespeare wrote this play, Elizabeth I was monarch of all of England — and during a very treacherous time. But she ruled with a strong hand and brought stability to a country riven by civil strife and the threat of foreign invasion. So I think Julius Caesar is a kind of cipher for Elizabeth. Was she strong? Yes. Was she ambitious? Yes. Was she dictatorial? Perhaps. Whether that was a good or bad thing can only be decided by the populace — in this case, the audience. That’s you!
How relevant do you feel the SRT’s rendition of Julius Caesar is today, with its political and gender-based undertones?
In SRT’s production of Julius Caesar, director Guy Unsworth has conceived Rome as R.O.M.E, an acronym for a powerful bloc of world leaders. Just as Rome circa 44BC saw itself as representing the world order, so does R.O.M.E circa 2018 AD see itself as the centre of global power.
But just as the Roman patricians saw Julius Caesar’s rising populism as a cause of concern, so does R.O.M.E’s G7 find Caesar’s ambition a source of tension in the delicate balance of power. Is she too ambitious? Does she have dictatorial tendencies? Whether she truly is as ambitious as her enemies make her out to be, or whether they are driven by their own self-interests, it is all part of recognisable global politics.
This production of Julius Caesar has two female leaders, Caesar herself and Cassius, out of a powerful bloc of 7 leaders that also includes Brutus, Casca, Decius, Cicero and Lucillius. Five of the seven are involved in the conspiracy against Caesar. So, I think this production is a realistic representation of current gender and power dynamics in world politics —#nastywomen!
What do you hope audiences — in particular, women — take away from this play?
I hope they will appreciate that it should NOT be seen as extraordinary that women are in power. Women already are in power everywhere – in politics, in companies, in civil society movements. If the stage is supposed to reflect the reality of the world, then then shouldn’t directors and theatre companies put more women on stage, and in these positions?
Given this new, loaded interpretation of Caesar, do you feel any sort of pressure taking on this role?
There’s a pressure in being the titular character of course. People come with a lot of expectations. “Why is Caesar a woman?” is often asked. But I hope people find that intriguing.
I am the titular character, but not the main character. For me, the two characters whose lives are sent into disarray are Brutus and Cassius, and they have to deal with the consequences of their actions. They carry the burden and the emotional resonance of the play. Because at the end of the day, the play is about people, and not about politics. It is a play about human desire and aspirations. It is the best of us and the worst of us. It is about people and their love and their hate and their jealousy and their grief. It is about corruption and greed, and loyalty and fierce friendships. It is what people truly believe in their hearts is the right and good thing to do — and then they doubt themselves. It’s fantastic.
Shakespeare in the Park — Julius Caesar will be staged from 2–27 May at Fort Canning Park. Book your tickets here.