Friends, Singaporeans, Countrymen, lend us your ears. The Singapore Repertory Theatre’s long awaited revival of Shakespeare in the Park is upon us at last this May, bringing with it a remarkably modern take on Julius Caesar, with acclaimed Malaysian actress Jo Kukathas taking on the titular role in a genderbent twist. Beset by a world of uneasy politics and would be dictators, Julius Caesar takes on more significance than ever, as SRT dresses the cast in snappy suits and seats the leaders of R.O.M.E. together at a precarious summit, and assassination plans brew.
Besides Jo, Julius Caesar’s star studded cast also includes fellow Malaysian actor Ghafir Akbar as Brutus, and Julie Wee as Cassius, complicated conspirators each nursing their own private agendas. We spoke to Ghafir and Julie, and picked their brains on the play, politics and the return to Fort Canning Park. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: When was your first encounter with the text of Julius Caesar, and what or who did you identify with most in the play?
Ghafir: It must have been in drama school. But more intimately just last year when I knew I was on board this project. I don’t know if I identified with any one character – as all of them have strong personal views on philosophy, governance, and morality. But I do find myself gravitating towards Brutus and Cassius. The need to take action and correct what is wrong, and particularly Brutus’ inner struggle with killing Caesar. You just have to flip through the news channels to see a version of Brutus or Cassius in our contemporary world.
Bakchormeeboy: You’ve worked with fellow Malaysian actor Jo Kukathas onstage plenty of times in Singapore, and now you’ll quite literally be stabbing her in the back. Has there ever been an occasion you felt compelled to betray a close friend in real life?
Ghafir: I would never betray Jo Kukathas! Hahaha! She is too well loved! I would be hunted down by so many people around the world! I think Brutus would disagree with the word betray. He feels her death is necessary, not trivial. There is a line where Brutus says “We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar, And in the spirit of men there is no blood. Oh, that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit, And not dismember Caesar! But, alas, Caesar must bleed for it.” To him he loves Caesar too much to kill her just because they disagree. He fears what she will become, her spirit, but you can’t take the spirit and not kill the body. That’s how delicate his thoughts are. In real life, of course, we often encounter people who don’t share out own views and I suppose I take the conscious effort to confront, rather than act so harshly. If not, since I’m a Scorpio, I’ll just stay quiet and pretend everything is fine.
Bakchormeeboy: Despite Brutus often being villainized as a backstabber, his actions are ultimately motivated by good intentions and patriotism. How did you prepare for such a complicated role?
Ghafir: It’s about perspectives I think. We all can feel differently about the same thing. Not everyone loves durian. Some hate it, some love it. My preparation involves being very clear about why I love something or otherwise. Brutus has to convince the other Conspirators, then later the people of the world that his actions are motivated by good intentions. And he must not, even for a second, appear unconvinced by his own rhetoric. I take inspiration from some famous political and religious leaders in the world, and study how they are able to discuss their politics (sometimes unpopular) and appear fuelled by it. I’m also blessed with a really amazing and giving cast. Julie Wee makes a great partner to spar against – she’s generous and her attention to detail makes everything that much richer.
Bakchormeeboy: What do you hope audience members take away after watching SRT’s Julius Caesar?
Ghafir: I suppose because of the impending election in Malaysia, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of the citizen in politics and governance, especially in a democracy. In this play, the leaders owe the people and the citizens a lot of explanation. Oftentimes I feel government and politicians appear to be serving their own interest when in fact they are put in place by the people. I hope this production (there are some elements of audience participation) encourages people to engage in some way with politics. It doesn’t mean you have to run for office or march to the streets. It means we have to be critical of what our leaders tell us and hear all sides of the story. In his speech to the citizen, Brutus prefaces it by saying: “Censure me in your wisdom, and awake your senses, that you may the better judge”. It’s a call to the people now, to “Speak, strike, redress”.
Also, Shakespeare is still relevant today!
Bakchormeeboy: Besides Julius Caesar himself being genderbent in this version of the play, you too are playing a character who was originally male. How does your gender affect the way you’ve decided to portray Cassius, and were there any people or performances you turned to for inspiration?
Julie: Many aspects are unaffected by Cassius being a woman as the dynamics of human interaction, politics and power aren’t necessarily dependent on gender. Though I would say that being a female Cassius has allowed the friendship between Cassius and Brutus to take on a different dimension. I feel that having 2 females play originally male roles shouldn’t be such a shocking thing, that it reflects the state of the world today and my desire that we have more women represented in leadership.
The audience may read a different social commentary when Cassius is played by a woman and Brutus is played by a man. Certain parts reflect the gender issues that have finally be brought to the surface in recent years.
For inspiration, I looked to the history of Julius Caesar himself, and what I could find out about Caius Cassius. I read ‘Julius Caesar‘ by Philip Freeman, the politics of Ancient Rome is fascinating and had me gripped.
Bakchormeeboy: Despite the increase in female representation in politics these days, there still appears to be a glass ceiling and a long way to go before gender equality is truly reached. If you were placed in a position of power, what would be the first thing you would change about the way women are treated in this country?
Julie: In August 2017, The Straits Times reported: “The gender pay gap in Singapore has not improved in the last 10 years, with men still earning nearly 20 per cent more than women, according to a study by consumer research firm ValuePenguin. In some industries, this wage gap is as much as 40 per cent.”
This has to change. So, were I in a position of power, I’d tackle pay equality. I’d also increase paternity leave so that fathers can be more involved with the raising of their children from the beginning.
Bakchormeeboy: You’re no stranger to Shakespeare in the Park, having worked on a number of previous productions with SRT. What is the greatest challenge to performing in an outdoor setting like Fort Canning Park?
Julie: During The Merchant of Venice as I was on my way to work one day, I had a Chekhov’s Three Sisters moment of “Why am I so happy today?” And I realized it’s because 1) I love Shakespeare and 2) I love performing outdoors. It’s a challenge and a joy. Contending with the humidity and the weather would be the greatest challenges. But when you’re in the middle of a scene that breeze comes, there’s nothing like it, not just for the relief but for that feeling of being connected with nature that you can never get inside a normal theatre.
Safety is also another challenge. We have to be very precise and conscientious in the park as the sets are amazingly elaborate – another aspect that you don’t often get in a conventional theatre setting. And this year the audience will get to enter ‘through the gates of Rome’ through the set to get to their picnic spots!
Bakchormeeboy: Why do you think Julius Caesar is a play that’s more relevant than ever in today’s time?
Julie: I would say it’s always been as relevant. I was listening to a recent BBC radio documentary entitled ‘How Do Dictators Survive So Long?‘ which said over half the world’s population are ruled by leaders that could be termed dictators.
Assassination doesn’t pay, as even when a dictator is taken down, the system that kept the dictator afloat would still be in place, so no matter how well intentioned the successor is, he/she is still subject to that system. And there are others who will be standing in the wings ready to grab power at the slightest chance.
Have a picnic under the stars with your significant other or friends as you enter the cutthroat world of R.O.M.E. How? We’re giving away two pairs of tickets to catch the preview performance of SRT’s Julius Caesar on 2nd May! All you have to do is:
Winners will be informed via Facebook.
Julius Caesar plays at Fort Canning Park from 2nd – 27th May 2018. Tickets available from SISTIC.