Theatre queen Jo Kukathas dishes out some Caesar (hint: not the salad) on the upcoming Shakespeare in the Park production: Julius Caesar
With so much immersive theatre, plays and musicals coming our way, we’re pretty much booked for the year. Truth be told, if there’s one play we can’t wait to catch, it’s Shakespeare in the Park’s Julius Caesar — with a badass woman in the titular role. Say what?
To get the lowdown from the leading lady herself, we caught up with Malaysia’s triple threat — actor, writer and director — Jo Kukathas over lunch at Singapore’s Drama Centre Theatre prior to her rehearsal session across the street. It’s not every day you get to witness the queen of satire and comedy tucking into her plate of bangers and mash while rhapsodising over her love for Shakespeare. Known as a stage shapeshifter, Kukathas is no stranger to assuming male characters, multiple roles in a single play, and now, a female take on a male character: Julius Caesar.
As part of the Singapore Repertory Theatre’s 25th anniversary, this production of Julius Caesar sees a modern shift — think Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 take on Romeo + Juliet — which includes contemporary political references. But what has us on the edge of our seats is having the region’s theatre royalty playing Julius Caesar as a woman in power. Intrigued, we wanted to know more about lead actress Jo Kukathas and why this play is worth laying our picnic mats for. As she said firmly with her hands gripping the silver cutlery, “there’s a reason why everyone — especially women — should come see this play.”…
Hi Jo! Tell us a bit about yourself…
Besides being an actor, writer and director, I also have my own theatre company [The Instant Cafe Theatre Company] which was formed in 1989 where we mostly do comedies, satires and a couple of outdoor Shakespeares at Carcosa Seri Negara [in KL] as well. I love outdoor Shakespeare — it’s a lot of fun! I’ve been acting in Malaysia since 1985, and have been involved in Singapore’s theatre scene for the last four-five years, working with companies such as SRT, W!ld R!ce, The Necessary Stage and Checkpoint as either an actor or a director.
Let’s talk Shakespeare. Are you a big fan?
Yes! One thing I like about Shakespeare is that sense of catharsis, especially with Julius Caesar. It riles us up and brings out our feelings. I started reading Shakespeare when I was a kid due to my dad [the late journalist K. Das] who’s a big Shakespeare fan and also a writer. So I remember him always quoting Shakespeare and reading Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare to [my siblings and I]. When my dad wrote the Musa Dilemma — back when then deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia [Datuk Musa Hitam] was thinking about resigning from the cabinet of then Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamed — he prefaced every chapter with a quotation from Julius Caesar. So as you can tell, Julius Caesar plays a big part in my life.
Speaking of Julius Caesar, what made you take on the role?
I’ve played a lot of male roles in my life. Despite being in a co-ed school, I always got cast as men. Only in my 30s did I get to play female characters of my age! Previously, would get cast in eccentric or against-type roles.
How does that make you feel?
It doesn’t feel unnatural. In fact, it feels normal. I believe that theatre is just theatre and that you can play anything as actors — from animals to a stand fan! But in this case, the director [Guy Unsworth] decided that Julius Caesar is a woman, so instead of playing a man, I am playing a woman.
What’s on everyone’s mind: Why is this production of Julius Caesar relevant today?
The language is still very much Shakespeare’s, but the play is directed in a contemporary setting of global politics. So Rome is no longer a city in Italy, but an acronym for an organisation similar to the UN. Coincidentally, there are seven us, leaders of R.O.M.E — the R7 as opposed to the G7. That way, it’s very current, and that’s the reason why the director decided that Caesar should be female. Because in the current situation, you wouldn’t find all leaders to be male. So I’m female, and the person playing Cassius is also female — two of us out of seven, which is quite representative of the people in power coming together in a summit to discuss pressing global political matters. And who knows, one day it’ll be five women and two men!
Girl power, yeah!
People have different attitudes towards female leaders and male leaders, and there’s a reason why women should come see this play: it’s so seldom that we’re allowed to have this idea of female leaders, and how she should act and behave differently from a male leader. Women are always criticised — scrutiny for her clothes, scrutiny for any comments she makes off-hand. Women are faced with all kinds of attitudes, and that includes women in power.
What can the audience expect?
The audience will enjoy the modernness of it. There’s a lot of multimedia, with a couple of scenes being filmed earlier and some depicting as Skype meetings. With modern technology, the play gives the audience a sense of familiarity. It’s very interactive, as well. When people are coming to the park [to watch the play], they’re coming in as citizens of all the different countries — it’s like they’re part of the play without having to go on stage to participate. The play’s a lot about citizens, the mob and the media, and how people can get emotionally swayed by competitions, the media, and things they feel strongly about.
We all know “Et tu, Brute.” But what is your favourite line?
“Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war.” There’s something about the language of it. The expression feels modern as well. It’s cry for civil war, and there’s so much war all over the world right now. It’s also much about civil strife, and people riling each other up. But you can see the power of that language. When he cries out “Havoc!”, it’s like he wants to create destruction and letting the “dogs” out. And once they’re let loose, you can’t control them.
Name a Shakespeare title and character you would want to play next.
Of course, Hamlet! But there’s just so many! I’ll have to name a few: Prospero (The Tempest), Lear (King Lear), the Fool (King Lear), Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra), Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), Volumnia (Coriolanus) — I’m so greedy. I’ve played Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet) which I loved and Lady M (Macbeth), so been there, done that!
Seriously, is there anything this theatre queen can’t do?
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