We talk to the star of SRT’s Shakespeare in the Park, a female Julius Caesar adapted for our modern times
This week sees the much anticipated return of Singapore Repertory Theatre’s (SRT) Shakespeare in the Park with Julius Caesar, a story of political power and greed, death and tragedy.
Although the original play was one of the few written by Shakespeare to be based on real events, the creative team at SRT have dramatically modernized the world of their Caesar and placed it in a fictional setting, although drawing on many recognizable constructs. Its badged as being fast and furious, with original music, a fantastic set and lots of surprises along the way, too.
But perhaps most intriguing for all Sassy Mamas is that the role of Caesar is being played by a woman; the fabulous Malaysian actress, Jo Kukathas.
For all you mamas lucky enough to have seen SRT’s Romeo & Juliet two years ago, Jo will be a familiar face as she played the memorable role of the Nurse. But this year her role is something quite different and substantially more challenging.
Although busy in final rehearsals, Shona Benson was lucky enough to grab a moment of Jo’s time and ask about the production, playing Caesar, the women she’d looked to for inspiration and what she thinks audience will make of it all!
What do you think Shakespeare would have made of a woman playing this title role in his play?
I think he’d be delighted! When Shakespeare wrote this play Elizabeth I was Queen and it was a truly treacherous time; she ruled with a strong hand and brought stability to a country riven by civil strife and the threat of foreign invasion.
As such, I think Julius Caesar can be seen as a cipher for Elizabeth and Shakespearean audiences would have seen her in the character. But Caesar is also a cipher for any leader who is charismatic and loved, but also divides people.
Who are the women you have looked to for inspiration and character development?
There have been so many fascinating female leaders throughout history and I’ve really enjoyed researching them all. Many have changed women’s lives for the better, although sadly that’s not always been the case. And contrary to what some may assume, women have been as capable of war and mass murder – Ranavalona, Mary Tudor, and Catherine de Medici to name a few – as men.
What become clear to me is that women in positions of power intrigue and excite in ways male leaders do not. Although it’s the ones who have been most divisive that I have really focused on for this role.
I’ve delved into the lives of historical figures such as Wu Zetian, the Emperor of China; Theodora the Byzantine Empress, and fascinating epochs where women were the de facto rulers such as The Sultanate of Women in Turkey.
There have been many strong women I’ve looked to in modern times as well; the Indian subcontinent alone produced Indira Gandhi, Mrs Bandaranaike, Benazir Bhutto, and Jayalalithaa. In the UK there was Thatcher who divided Britain in the 80s, and Hilary Clinton who was so controversial in the last US election. And all divide opinion still.
I also find Angela Merkel fascinating because she is a powerful contemporary female leader who doesn’t outwardly inspire aggression in her opponents, she seems above reproach. But she still galls, irritates and even quietly infuriates some people.
And there is Aung San Suu Kyi. Recent events surrounding her have left people feeling betrayed which is particularly hard when she had been so deeply loved and supported.
Do you think this play highlights differences or similarities between the two sexes?
I think it probably does both. This production has two parts traditionally played by men, Caesar and Cassius, being played by women, along with Brutus, Casca, Decius, Cicero and Lucillius. And five of the seven in this powerful block are involved in the conspiracy against Caesar. It makes for a realistic representation of current gender and power dynamics in world politics.
At the same time what I think is interesting are the differences between Caesar and Cassius. It’s not their gender that defines them – it’s their human desires, flaws and aspirations. There is no cookie cutter version of what constitutes a female leader.
I’m not sure if Caesar is assassinated for her ambition, her gender or both. Sadly, despite many changes that have been brought about by modern day feminism, ambition is regarded very differently in both sexes. To be an ambitious man is a compliment but an ambitious woman, all too often, is said as an insult.
What would you like audiences to take away with them at the end of the night?
That’s hard, the play is about so much!
But it is not about politics, it is about people: friendship, loyalty, jealousy, betrayal, love, hate, grief, revenge, corruption, greed, mistrust and plans gone very wrong. And we all forgive things in our friends we find unforgivable in our enemies.
However, essentially, thanks to Shakespeare but also the creative team that have brought this version to life, it’s fantastic theatre and I hope everyone will take away something about the complexity of our lives and a sense of what it is to be human.
Thank you, Jo! Julius Caesar will be playing Fort Canning Park nightly through 27 May. Click here for tickets!