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“you feel like you’re cracking a code”

Bell Shakespeare's 2018 season as seen from the inside.

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Taking on The Donald and the Dereks

Date: 13 Nov 2017

Audrey asked three actors in Bell Shakespeare’s 2018 season to tell us what’s on their mind as they prepare for their roles.

Donald Trump, sexual harassment and ‘Derek of Mosman’ loom large.

Zindzi Okenyo: Antony and Cleopatra

“I have a weird relationship with Shakespeare because to me a lot of his plays aren’t that relevant. If you are going to do it you have to make them for today. You have to change it up. It needs to have agency in a contemporary setting.

I play Charmian in Antony and Cleopatra. She was originally written as Cleopatra’s servant or a handmaiden. But I refuse to play a handmaiden, I’m just not doing that. In this production, she is Cleopatra’s confidante. Cleopatra has two female confidantes in our production and they are independent smart women. Cleopatra [played by Catherine McClements] is the Queen but aside from that there is no real hierarchy, which I am excited about.

Charmian is a great character, really funny, sexy and witty and quite charming, I think. There is a lot in the language where you can feel her wickedness.

I’ve been really fortunate ever since I graduated from NIDA to be able to work with a lot of theatre greats, people who are extremely skilled, especially when I was just starting out. I’ve had all these amazing female mentors along the way. The late and great Victoria Longley was in my first show, The Vertical Hour. Then Paula Arundel and Gillian Jones [in Scorched at Belvoir] and Marta Dusseldorp [in The Crucible at Sydney Theatre Company]. It has been great just shutting up and observing how these women work. You can really, really learn a lot.

I’m looking forward to that experience working with Catherine. I know she will bring something special to the role and it’s always special when you work with people who are better than you and that you learn from.

“You feel like you’re cracking a code”

To me, a successful Shakespeare is when you don’t feel that it is old language. I loved Hamlet by the Schaubuhne [Sydney Festival 2010]. That company is so great at imagery. Richard 3 [Bell Shakespeare, 2017] did that really well, too. Keeping it all in that one room, with actors on stage who really had a grasp on the language made it work so well and Kate Mulvany was extraordinary. She had such a hold of the language that it allows you as an audience member to just relax. You can just be immersed in the story.

Mitchell Butel is another actor, I admire. He is extraordinarily rigorous. I did Disgraced with him at Melbourne Theatre Company. He is kinda rare. He continually wants to work on the text and discover, discover, discover. He never lets it settle. It’s really exciting to work with someone like that. You really need that rigorousness to get past the mechanics of stuff and then you can play.

The cool thing about doing Antony and Cleopatra is studying it. You really need to sit down with a big Shakespeare dictionary and look up every word, especially because particular words will mean something completely different in each play. You can’t rest on any understanding of what you think it might be.

I remember sitting in the library at NIDA with a dictionary. You feel like you’re cracking a code. You look at a speech and in those dictionaries you get the answers. That’s what I’m really looking forward to.”

Antony and Cleopatra plays at the Sydney Opera House March 3-April 7, 2018; Canberra Theatre Centre,  April 12-21, and Arts Centre, Melbourne April 26-May 13.

Kenneth Ransom: Julius Caesar

“I trained as an actor at UCLA, which was very film and TV oriented as you can imagine, this being Los Angeles. I thought ‘Oh God, I better get some theatre training if I really want to do this. So I hooked up with Shakespeare & Company in Massachusetts and started as an apprentice there.

My first mainstage role was Silvius in As You Like It. It was a great experience. They dressed me in country clothes. I wore clogs. I was 6’ 5”, gangly and running around after Phoebe who was tiny … really little. Eventually she had a physical challenge and had a hard time moving in the space so we came up with a thing where I carried her everywhere. It was beautiful. We became very close. We had to, either that or hate each other!

To me Shakespeare is one of the best writers in the history of the planet. It takes some time to understand the depth of what is going on, and I like to take that time. There is just so much in there about the human condition. I like having something that you have to keep working on. It’s like a score, the musicality of it. But mostly it’s the depth in the language that draws me to Shakespeare.

I’ve actually been in Julius Caesar two times before, I played Senna the conspirator in a production in Los Angeles which was based in the 1960s in America at the time of the Civil Rights movement, so there were black conspirators and SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] conspirators. It was that look and feel. Calpurnia wore a pillbox hat like Jackie Kennedy.

In another production I played Octavius, Caesar’s nephew. I was quite young when I did those.

I did Brutus in a workshop production and it was one of the most profound experiences I’ve had as an actor. The depth of that character, his turmoil over what he’s going through … and that connection he has with Cassius – that could almost be perceived as romantic love – was really interesting.

I thought if I ever did Julius Caesar again I would play Brutus but lo and behold, I’m Julius Caesar. Ivan Donato plays Brutus. I saw him in A View From the Bridge. He did really good work. I’m really looking forward to mixing it up with him.

“I’ll have to find my inner megalomaniac”

Julius Caesar, as a character, is a far cry from me. I’ll have to find my inner megalomaniac. I’m not someone who demands all the air. I’m just not that guy. But I have to become that. I have to be the one who is completely in control of everything. I will have to find something in myself that is untapped. I saw myself playing Brutus because he’s so much the Everyman. He’s like ‘Let’s all be in this, we all have to make it work’. I’ve never been the guy who goes ‘It’s about me and it will always be about me!’

It will be a challenge, but having said that, Julius Caesar is the shortest-staying title character in all Shakespeare. I’m done pretty early. Bye-bye!

The play is being revived around the world. It’s populism, right? And Donald Trump. You couldn’t be a more populist leader than Donald Trump. I’m grappling with that myself. How much do I make Julius a populist?

I think my being American is useful to the role. America is the last great empire and it is in its the death throes, I would say. I know audiences will read something into me being African-American in this role. It will be our challenge to not encourage that. It’s a casting choice and not a redefining of the entire play.”

Julius Caesar begins a national tour at the Arts Centre Melbourne on July 18, 2018. It plays at the Sydney Opera House October 23-November 25, 2018.

Danielle Cormack: The Misanthrope

“Most of the theatre I’ve done has been contemporary and The Misanthrope will be very contemporary. It will really spin a classic on its head. By shifting the gender of the title character, it might have some confronting moments for the more conservative in the audience. I love that. Creating theatre or television or film, is about challenging people.

In our production, the protagonist is female and in a position of power and she has a strong voice in that world.

There was a letter in the Sydney Morning Herald from ‘Derek of Mosman’, when it was announced Bell Shakespeare would be gender-swapping some characters. He wasn’t pleased at all. But I think theatre should make you feel uneasy. You might feel you want to resist it. It makes my job more interesting. I will be thinking of Derek from Mosman. I’ll be looking out at the curtain call to see if I can spot him.

“Thank fuck it’s been exposed”

I think it’s an exciting time to be a woman in theatre but it’s still incredibly challenging in areas where it shouldn’t be any more. Like every day now there is another revelation [the unfolding sexual assault and harassment allegations]. Thank fuck it’s been exposed now, and let us not become complacent again and just go back to how things were. These moments have to shift things forever. I’ve noticed a shift across the board, not only in stage, but also in media and in television and film. There is support for female protagonists and women in the work place, and equal pay and everything that we should actually just have.

I move forward with all these amazing women – and men who are supporting women – in solidarity. But I also sometimes sit back in the cheap seats and watch with great interest the men who have practiced patriarchy to see what happens next, what the fallout will be. Where do men find themselves in this new balance? It’s going to be very important now to look forward, rather than back, to see how we can support our young women and our young men.

I am hoping The Misanthrope will illuminate all of those themes and the discord between the sexes and where we place that now. It’s an interesting moment in time. It is wobbly terrain at the moment and we are looking for solid footing. It’s good. It shakes things up.”

The Misanthrope plays at the Sydney Opera House, August 28 – September 28, 2018.

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