Bell Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is coming to the end of a long national tour with just a few weeks left at the Sydney Opera House.
The actors – the most culturally diverse group of artists Bell Shakespeare has ever taken on the road – take a moment to share with Audrey Journal their experiences of the power of colour positive casting.
It is pretty amazing. My first Shakespeare. Ever.
I still can’t believe I’m doing it.
When Bell Shakespeare sent me an email to see if I wanted to audition, and I thought it was a hoax. I thought, ‘I don’t think that’s meant for me’. I was performing with Heather Mitchell at the time and I thought, I’m preeeeety sure the email was meant for her, so I just let it go.
Then they emailed me again and I’m like um … why do you people keep emailing me?
I was also working on a solo show at the time [My Urrwai] and my director, Rachael Maza, was like, ‘what are you talking about? Give me the phone, they want you to audition’.
I was thrown with the idea but I was keen to give it a go. I like trying new things. I went for the audition and I got a role. I was really pumped and terrified at the same time. But you don’t move forward unless you fear something.
And oh my gosh, it was scary. But we had a voice coach, Jess Chambers, and that woman is amazing. She has a lot of patience. I sat down with her a lot just so she could help me understand what I was saying. She’d ask me what I thought my lines meant. I’d say, I think they’re saying people have bad breath. And she’d say, exactly! So how would you say that. I would totally not want to smell their breath, it’s so bad. She’d say great, use that but say it with these words.
So she helped me transfer my thoughts into the words that I didn’t understand.
It was also great, because in one of my scenes, I’m standing across from Ivan Donato and Nick Simpson-Deeks and those guys are pros. The way they delivered their lines made me understand how to deliver mine. That really really helped.
Russell Smith is in the cast, too, and that’s been awesome. He was my teacher when I was studying at NIDA and performing with him now is pretty boss.
He told me this amazing thing. There were words I was struggling to pronounce. And what I discovered with him is that Europeans have a kind of ridge behind their top front teeth and indigenous peoples of Australia don’t. So the way I pronounce words is very different, which is why I say my S’s differently. It was an amazing discovery.
Jess didn’t know it either so it was really interesting to navigate it with her. She was pretty excited about this new thing she’d learned, too.
Even now, I’m still navigating the rest of the show, which is pretty exciting for me. Every night I understand something new and I think ‘oh my gosh, that’s why that happens.” and I get really excited about it.
It’s a really exciting show to be in, especially now with everything that is going on in parliament. It’s actually making me see a totally other side of politics. It’s awesome and challenging. It’s a pity we weren’t performing in Canberra the week of the leadership spill, that would have been awesome.
I play Casca and Messala. Casca is one of the conspirators. She, poor bugger, is easily manipulated by Cassius.
Messala is Brutus’ messenger, a bit of a cameo. But I really like my roles in the show. I feel like they are pretty boss people.
I believe this production is the first time were the majority of cast members haven’t worked with Bell before. Seven new members. The cast is also very diverse. It’s the first time I’ve been in a major company where I’m surrounded by people of colour. I’m not the token one in this cast. Nick Simpson-Deeks is! He’s the only white guy. Which is really funny because he’s never been in that situation before either. The whole cast is learning from being surrounded by people from so many different backgrounds. It is really amazing.
We are doing an acknowledgement to country within the show. That’s another first for Bell Shakespeare. When I suggested it, everyone was totally on board. Every place we’ve been to, we’ve found out who the mob are in that country and we’ve done Welcome in every venue and gosh, it just feels really good to do that.
On a long tour like this, it’s exciting to be able to sit with the dialogue and dig deep and be playful with the other actors.
I’m one of Brutus’ band of conspirators and I play Cinna the poet and I’ll have done something like 100 shows by the end of this tour. I’ve never had an acting job for this long. It’s great to sit with a character and get to know how they would react to a situation. You are always exploring and making different choices. The possibilities are endless when you are constantly in a state of play.
With so much colour in the casting, it’s been interesting to experience the audience reaction to the play. I feel that a lot of people can be proprietorial when it comes to Shakespeare, and that it has to be done a certain way. This production is so completely different to others I have seen.
Just talking about this … I might tear up, actually … I got a message on Facebook from a high school student saying how refreshing it was seeing someone that looked like him on stage.
It was like that for me, too. Growing up, I never saw anyone who looked like me and you start to question whether choosing a job in a creative field is even viable. So it is important to have that visibility on our stages.
Asian Australians are so rarely featured in our narratives. So it’s exciting for me when I see my friends and peers in the professional arena, actually working. I’m really proud to be part of a show whose casting is a little more representative of the world I see.
In the rehearsal room, it was amazing for me not having to explain my cultural differences. That normally happens when I’m in a predominantly white rehearsal room. So this was refreshing – very refreshing.
My family is coming to the Sydney season at the Opera House which is great because right now the show is a well-oiled machine. It has been great seeing Julius Caesar progress from our first show in Orange, which feel like ages ago. The beauty of the show is that it is constantly growing and the audience completes that circle.
We are having a great time travelling the country together. Julius Caesar has been really well received, particularly in regional areas, and with the leadership spill a couple of weeks back, the audiences were relating it to politics in Canberra, which was hilarious.
But we’ve also had a lot of people relating to the gender swaps in the show and getting a lot out of that.
I’m playing Mark Antony, playing him as a her.
The director James Evans made that decision. He wanted Mark Antony to be a woman and Octavius a woman. But we did talk about it a lot. Mark Antony was a real person, a historical character. So we talked a lot about what changing his gender might mean.
Shakespeare plays a lot with the truth. How much is historically accurate is open to debate. We also felt that in the play itself, there is nothing that particularly pertains to Mark Antony’s gender.
But you are also playing against the audience’s expectations. A lot of people have major expectations of what Mark Antony should be like. Marlon Brando did a very famous performance on film in 1953 that people can still see. You are playing against those kinds of expectations.
I think it’s really great because you want to get people to think. If they don’t agree with the choice, then they also have to think about why they don’t agree. If they love it, they have to think about why they love it.
I did a lot of research into modern political figures when I was preparing. I studied women in politics, like Hilary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice, and Julia Gillard and Julie Bishop. Even Peta Credlin, because Mark Antony is not the leader. She is the right hand of the leader.
And then I looked at Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela, politicians who inspire through emotion in their speeches. I became very interested in the way political figures try to get to our emotions before our reasoning. That’s what Mark Antony tries to do.
Actually, I very quickly forgot about the fact that Mark Antony was originally a man. And Nick Simpson-Deeks, who plays Cassius, said to me, and in a couple of interviews, that he can’t imagine Mark Antony being a man in our version. It seems absolutely right that Mark is a woman in the world we have created.
It’s been interesting following Julie Bishop navigating her situation recently.
Whether you agree with her politics or not, she has accorded herself with quite a bit of dignity in trying circumstances. She has also hung in there and worked very hard for a very long time. Watching her ability to navigate that terrain has been quite fascinating. I don’t know how she did it to be honest.
To me, Mark Antony is a hero, but in our play she doesn’t necessarily do heroic things. I really that, too. The women in this world are not necessarily more just or more right than their male counterparts. But they have to fight even harder to survive. They are also very careful not to show their ugly sides because they are not allowed to. Men get away with all sorts of stuff that women can’t in the public arena.
The school shows have been great. We had one lot of young school girls spontaneously burst into applause when we said women should be in positions of power just as much as men. Seeing them start clapping, these 14-year-olds, you realise it is really important that they know this is possible for them. It is so, so important that they can see themselves in positions of power. It is the future – or it should be the future.
And it’s absolutely amazing performing in an ensemble like this. For me, it’s a very healing experience to know I’m not here because they wanted to put a coloured person in the mix. It is healing for me as a woman of colour to know I am there for the right reasons. It is because of my talent and not anything else.
I’ve had white, very conservative-seeming, late-middle-aged men come up and tell me how much they loved seeing Mark Antony as a black woman. That has surprised me because I would have thought they would be the people who may not be able to accept it as much.
Those kinds of reactions are good. But the reactions where people barely notice are almost the best.