By Roweena Yip
(925 words, five-minute read)
The Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) Shakespeare In The Park returns to Fort Canning Green, after a year’s hiatus, with Julius Caesar—a play that has recently seen a resurgence in performance, perhaps because of its poignant resonances with the current political zeitgeist. Sprawled out upon the cascading slope of the Green, audiences bear witness to power struggles and political intrigues among the leaders of R.O.M.E, a bloc of seven nation-states. Foremost among these leaders is Julius Caesar, performed with serene gravitas by the Malaysian actress Jo Kukathas.
While events concerning the historical figure of Caesar may now have been consigned to the recesses of our collective cultural consciousness as citizens of democracies, this performance gestures towards the possibility for a different vision of political leadership—one in which women perform the central roles, in all their complexity. The decision to cast female actors (Kukathas as Caesar, and Julie Wee as Cassius) in the central dramatic roles marks an intervention into Shakespeare’s text—set within the hyper-masculine milieu of Roman paterfamilias where only men could claim legitimacy of rule—through the performance of distinctive modes of femininity. In doing so, the production, directed by Guy Unsworth with both sensitivity and edge, allows us to question our own implicit assumptions about the ways in which political authority is perceived in gendered terms—especially at a time in which contemporary public discourse on gender politics appears particularly fraught.
Both the linguistic and visual aspects of the production are attenuated to the variety and complexity involved in the representation of feminine subjectivities on stage. Subtle changes in gendered third person pronouns from “him/he” to “her/she” already indicate a shift in referent, and we are confronted with the possibility that the meaning of Shakespeare’s lines becomes fundamentally changed by the mere presence of female bodies on stage. “In the spirit of men there is no blood,” says Brutus (Ghafir Akbar), in response to the female Cassius’ call for the death of Marc Antony (Thomas Pang).
Caesar and Cassius are fully reimagined and performed as women: both are dressed in ways that mark out their sexed female bodies, and both exude poise in their bearing, speech, and demeanour. Nevertheless, both actors perform very different modes of femininity.
In her signature crop, Jo Kukathas’ performance as Caesar evokes the ethical ambivalence of absolute authority—even if the vessel of that authority is a woman. Caesar first appears on stage dressed in a resplendent navy-blue gown that tapers to white at the hem. In subsequent scenes, she wears a pant-suit, with a white shirt and a navy jacket. Blue and white—the colours of R.O.M.E, projected boldly on the screen behind the cast. Beneath the costume decisions lies an implicit provocation against both the historical and Shakespearean myths of Caesar and Rome, prompting the audience to think: what if the nation state were embodied in the figure of a woman, and what implications might that have on our popular conceptualisation of political leadership?
Of slighter build than R.O.M.E’s other leaders, Caesar still occupies the central position in the forum, and at the meeting table. “Men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive”, this female Caesar says, herself appearing to embody an alternative form of political authority. The multiple projections of her image on the split-screen projections along the back of the set are reminiscent of the populist iconography of any political dictator: addressing crowds on the podium, leading a procession through throngs of the population, memorable taglines and slogans. The only seemingly personal relationship Caesar is shown to have is with Calpurnia, though moments that ought to suggest physical intimacy between them as a married couple are curtailed.
While Kukathas performs the role of Caesar with the dignified composure of entrenched authority, Julie Wee’s performance of Cassius is dynamic and expressive, as she incites the other leaders of R.O.M.E towards violence and murder. Her hair styled in a neat chignon, she first appears wearing a deep red gown that visually demarcates her femininity, evoking perhaps the familiar yet problematic image of the femme fatale. Subsequently, she wears a lilac pantsuit and a white shirt—feminine, yet practical. In contrast to Kukathas’ lower, commanding register as Caesar, Wee’s vocal presentation as Cassius is crisp, articulate, and yet indubitably feminine. That she is able to successfully steer the male collective to her cause seems to offer yet another style of leadership, one that is manipulative and self-serving, but also ruthlessly efficient at galvanising the support of the disgruntled (male) political elite.
Even as the production allows for the seamless articulation of these different modes of femininity, creating a world in which women can and do exist as political leaders, it nevertheless remains circumscribed by the inevitability of history and the scripted outcome of events. Crucially, the production does not offer an essentially utopian or recuperative vision for this female-led world. Women, too, are portrayed as being capable of great violence, and are equally susceptible to despotism, ambition, and corruption.
As a postscript to this extended exploration on the representation of gender in this production, I invoke the barely-perceptible spectre of Portia. Insofar as the production has opened up possibilities of theorising feminine representation and its attendant political implications in a play initially conceived as being about male ambition, perhaps Portia’s suicide off-stage attests to a third mode of femininity that does not and cannot belong in the world and ethos of the production.
Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park Julius Caesar runs from 2 – 27 May 2018 at Fort Canning Park. This review is of a performance on the 4th of May 2018. Tickets on sale here.
Guest Contributor Roweena Yip is a PhD candidate in Theatre Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS), whose research interests lie in the intersections of gender and intercultural performances of Shakespeare in East Asia. She completed both her undergraduate degree in English Literature, and Master’s degree in Renaissance Literature, at the University of Edinburgh, UK.