Skip to content
  • Open today 9am–5pm
  • Free general admission

Jemwel Danao, James Evans, Ghenoa Gela, Maryanne Fonceca, Neveen Hanna, Emily Havea, Kenneth Ransom, Russell Smith, Lily Withycombe and Sara Zwangobani, 14 October 2018

LILY WITHYCOMBE: Welcome everyone to the National Museum of Australia. My name is Lily Withycombe, and I’m the curator here who was fortunate enough to be asked to work on the Rome: City and Empire exhibition from the Canberra end. So welcome to our fourth lecture in the series for Rome: City and Empire. This is going to be running ... our series of programmes are going to be running throughout the life of the exhibition and this is part of a much larger suite of public programmes that we’re doing here.

So, here we are, in Australia, in 2018. What an amazing coincidence that the same year that the National Museum of Australia hosts an exhibition on ancient Rome, that Bell Shakespeare produces two plays on ancient Rome, first Mark Antony and Cleopatra or Antony and Cleopatra, and then Julius Caesar. Now, it almost seems like a suspicious coincidence, but I can tell you personally and factually that there was no collaboration here — truly is a happy coincidence. And I think is also testament to the ongoing importance and significance of ancient Rome in Australia and the ways that Australians creatively reimagine ancient Rome as well.

Now, it’s an absolute pleasure to be able to welcome the cast from Bell Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar here today. So I was able to watch the performance on Friday night at the Canberra Theatre Centre, and it was excellent. It was a truly gripping performance. So for those of you who haven’t seen it, you’re in for such a treat. I will warn you that I’m going to be asking some questions, which I hope are going to draw out some of the surprises in this production. So I might have to do a few spoiler alerts, so just cover your ears in a few moments for those of you who haven’t yet seen it.

So political intrigue, divisions within the conservative ruling party. A leader is overthrown. Canberra, does this sound familiar? Am I talking about Australian federal politics or am I talking about Julius Caesar? Well, could be either. Now I’m going to ask the cast to introduce yourselves to the audience, first of all, with your given name and then with the name of the character you played in Julius Caesar. So I’ll begin with you, Maryanne.

MARYANNE FONCECA: Sure. Hi everyone. My name is Maryanne Fonceca and I play Portia and also a member of the mob. And the mob is quite a big part of our version of Julius Caesar.

SARA ZWANGOBANI: Hi. I’m Sara Zwangobani. And I play Mark Antony.

NEVEEN HANNA: Hi, my name is Neveen Hanna. I play several characters. I play the soothsayer, I play Trebonius, and I play Pindarus.

JAMES EVANS: Hi, I’m James Evans. I’m the director of this production, but also just for now, I’m playing Brutus.

KENNETH RANSOM: Just for now. I’m Kenneth Ransom, I’m playing Julius Caesar and Julius Caesar’s ghost.

EMILY HAVEA: I got my own mic, thank you. I’m Emily Havea, and I am playing Calphurnia, and I’m also playing Octavius.

JEMWEL DANAO: Hello, my name is Jemwel Danao, I play Metellus Cimber, a member of Brutus’s band of conspirators and Cinna the Poet, who happens to share the same name as another conspirator. As you can tell, it probably doesn’t end well for him.

RUSSELL SMITH: Good day, my name’s Russ Smith. I play Decius, one of the conspirators, Lucilius, who is, I suppose Brutus’s right hand man within a war and then one of the cobbler, a rather flamboyant cobbler.

OTHER CAST MEMBERS: Very flamboyant.

GHENOA GELA: Hi name is Ghenoa Gela, like Sheila.  Proud Torres Strait Islander woman, and my roles is Casca and Messala among other things.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: Okay. So my first question is for James. So having directed the play for 52 weeks across Australia, how did this influence your characterization, and your performance of Brutus here in Canberra?

JAMES EVANS: Yes. And look, this is very unusual. Definite, I was saying the other night, I’m not in the habit of casting myself in my own shows that’s really not appropriate. But because as a director you need to be able to have a broader view of the production, you need to almost act as a referee. You want your actors to come on and bring their own creativity and personality into the choices that they make. And then you can sit outside it on a production-wide level and almost be a referee and guide that process. So coming from there to then into the nitty gritty of actually playing the role of Brutus, was a huge shock. As the director and having heard the play hundreds of times, I’ve ... learning the lines is not an issue, you basically learn the whole play off by heart, as all of you have by now as well, I’m sure, having done it 52 times.

But characterising Brutus and not trying to copy the characterisation exactly of the person who I cast because the person that I cast as Brutus, Ivan Donato, wonderful actor, who unfortunately couldn’t continue. I cast him for a very particular reason because he’s got a dark edge to him and there’s something brooding about him. I’m not that kind of Brutus, I’m probably more traditional Brutus, a bit more thoughtful and just trying to get through the conspiracy. I didn’t want to try and copy and act like Ivan, but more than anything, I just wanted to make sense of Shakespeare’s language, make it absolutely crystal clear and become a vehicle for this story to be told.

So that was my first focus, and now as I’ve ... I’ve done it three times now, so forth time this afternoon. And as we go each time I’ll try and find more and more within the character and just looking in the eyes of the other characters onstage within the relationships as well. And it’s really interesting coming from a place of being the director of these guys to then coming in and joining them as a colleague on stage, and I’ve found that they’ve been wonderfully playful and welcoming and encouraging and helpful. So thanks you guys.

CAST MEMBER: You’re welcome, dude.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: Oh, wonderful. So my next question is for Kenneth, Hail Caesar. Now, this play narrates one of the most fascinating socio-political periods of history. This transition from the late Republic to the early empire in Rome. And Australians today recognise this really iconic cast of characters, Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra, even Cicero, Calphurnia, Portia, the list goes on. All these names, we still recognise. My question is, why do you think that this period of history continues to resonate today?

KENNETH RANSOM: Lily, we started this conversation actually at the show, after the show. And my thinking ... I don’t remember what I said at the time, but my thinking is that you’re a historian, so you understand it from one point of view. But as an actor, I do look at the history, I read a lot of it, probably more than anybody else in the cast. But that said, I’m looking for psychological hints, human behaviour. So I don’t know exactly why this is interesting to people, but I would say it has something to do with sex, violence, human intrigue, those things that are all there. On the movies that are done today, they have all those elements, and it’s in this period of time.

And then I’m looking for the psychological angle that this character has taken. And I think those things are why it’s still interesting to people that Caesar was clearly talented in going to where he aspired to go. He was ruthless. I think he might’ve even been a psychopath. I’ve done some reading on what that means to be a psychopath and the crossing of the Rubicon, that’s a historical event, what it says about the man is phenomenal. What kind of man would take that chance, would go to that extent, had the courage to do that, or maybe it wasn’t just courage, maybe it was something about him that allowed him to do something that was that dangerous and not experience the fear that the rest of us have.

MARYANNE FONCECA: I also wonder whether there’s something about the grandeur of the times, the epic quality of Rome and ancient Rome that really resonates something in us. We, something in us. There’s something about it that feels larger than life when we look at these things and study these things. But actually for the people living at the time, they were just living like we are today. I mean, who knows what people in the future will think about our times. But to me there’s definitely something ... I’d done a lot of ancient history and I’ve been to Rome myself, I’m sure many people here have. And there’s something about the actually epic nature of those times I think that really still has power.

JAMES EVANS: Also, it’s so dramatic. If Brutus and Cassius had sat down with Caesar and said, ‘Now, look, I think we all agree that kings aren’t a good idea for Rome.’ and Caesar had said, ‘You know what? That’s right.’ and they had said, ‘Look, Caesar, why don’t you go conquer lands over there? We’ll take care of Rome here, and we’ll be fine.’ Then that perhaps would not have piqued Shakespeare’s interest to write this play. But it’s drama, it’s that defining event of assassination and how it changed the world that continues to fascinate us.

And I think it’s important to note that Shakespeare is interested in the book ends of Rome’s democracy. So in 509 BC, before that, Rome had the kings, the Tarquins were in power. And then the Rape of Lucrece happens in 509 BC, Brutus’s ancestor and his allies upend the kings and established the Republic. 450 years, you have the Republic. So Shakespeare writes about that period of history, and the way society organises itself changing, and then jumps forward 450 years to the very end of the Republic and how Augustus takes over, and the imperial system begins.

So I think Shakespeare, and by extension us, is interested in how societies arrange themselves, how political systems rise and fall, but also how things that seem that they will last forever ultimately can crumble. I mean, nothing has to last forever, and people who were probably living within the Republic thought, well, this is how we’re going to live now for the rest of time, and then all of a sudden you’re not. So Shakespeare is interested in those moments as well, I think, and how societies can fall apart in an instant.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: Yes, absolutely. That’s beautiful responses. My next question is for Ghe. So we all noticed, everyone who was in the National Museum, who was at the performance on Friday, we all noticed and were really struck by your performance and particularly there’s a beautiful physicality to your performance, and we wondered if you’d be able to talk about this today.

GHENOA GELA: Yeah, sure. Cool. Thanks. That’s pretty awesome. The physicality that I have in the show is there so I can remember my lines. My background is actually in the dance industry and I was very fortunate to land this role with Bell and these amazing people here with me. First theatre gig, but it’s my 52nd show. No, actually that’s a big lie, it’s about my 47th, 48th show. Yes yes. So technically I’ve done theatre now for about 48 shows. But yes, I found it really hard to because I didn’t go to any acting school or anything like that. So when I saw the script … the first time I saw like a proper script, it was in a book and everything. And I was like, ‘Oh dear gosh, I don’t even know what these people are saying.’ So it was so foreign to me, this language.

Already I never even heard about friends, Romans, countrymen, never heard that except in Robin Hood, Men in Tights. And I didn’t know it was a thing until I got here and no good, it’s actually a thing. So yeah, it was quite a challenge and I was totally keen for it, love challenges, all the things. And we had an amazing vocal coach called Jess Chambers. And actually this fellow, this deadly fellow here, he was my drama teacher, my first drama teacher when I was studying at NAISDA, the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association dance school.

CAST MEMBER: We didn’t do Shakespeare.

GHENOA GELA: No, we didn’t do Shakespeare. Thanks, bruz. Thanks for that. But yeah, with the help of Russ and Jess, they found a way for me to try to understand the words, so I knew what I was actually trying to say. But the only way that I could remember it then was by doing movement as I’m doing right now because that helps me solidify also what I am saying and then I’m feeling it as well as saying it, if that makes sense. So that’s how that is there. And I’m really thankful for James to allow me to try and find my strength in that, to allow my strength to come through so I can do my job as best as I can do as well, which is something that I pride myself on. So it was such a fun process. Also, to try and figure out a way to move without dancing because it could have been quite complicated in doing all the things and next minute there’s a bum roll and then I get back up and start like ... totally didn’t want to go there.

So it was really interesting to try and find a ... to analyse my movement in a way that it was more pedestrian, more storytelling than it actually was dance. So that was quite exciting to do as well. So thank you very much for noticing, I was working very hard on that.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: That was beautiful. And that’s a really amazing response. Thank you. All right, my next question is for Emily. Now, the exhibition Rome: City and Empire contains an exquisite portrait bust of the emperor Augustus, before he becomes Augustus, he’s Octavian at the time. And what I was wondering is if ancient objects or ancient texts influence your characterization of the character or if you’re likely to refer to modern influences?

EMILY HAVEA: Yes. Well, coming to Octavius, I found it difficult to be given a role that is male because as an actor when you get given characters or scripts, you look for things that you can connect to. So, in Calphurnia, who is Julius Caesar’s wife, I could connect to my mum and seeing her be a wife, and I kind of thought about that. I’m not a wife myself, but I could pull from my own experience of being a woman and things in my life that I thought about and draw from that and then kind of extend into the scene. But in being given a male character, I was like, well, I’m not a guy, so, okay. So I had to find other ways to get in.

So I found personally looking at images or old texts kind of just confused me because I was like, well, he looks nothing like me. Like I’ve never been an emperor, I didn’t rule for 40 years. I just kept seeing the things that I couldn’t really connect with. So it actually took me quite a bit of time to get myself in there. And I remember in Melbourne, which was about show 15, we’re up to show 50 at the moment of 100. And then we did a school’s Q&A and a girl at the back asked me a question and she was like, ‘You know, did you play Octavius as a boy or a girl?’ And I was like, girl, obviously in my head. But then I thought about how someone else was perceiving it outside and I was like, ‘Ugh, true, am I playing it as a boy or a girl?’

It’s been a thing that I think has actually constantly questioned or like I’ve been working on consistently as this show has gone on, trying to bring myself as a woman to this role who she ... and even the way you speak about her, when people say, ‘Oh, you’re playing Octavius.’, ‘he, he, he’, it’s like I have to re-contextualize it for myself, like calling her a ‘she’ and bringing it closer to myself so I can get myself in the character. So yeah, it’s an ongoing thing. I’d be interested to see what Sara and Mark Anthony as well and how you found getting into a male character as a female and how you connect.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: Well, we can jump to that question.

SARA ZWANGOBANI: I’ll just speak a little bit to add to that. I had a very similar experience. But you asked about using ancient objects and so on, I actually did. I started off by getting a lot of images from the period of male fighters, actually, a lot of those, gladiators, that sort of thing. I looked at a lot of ancient stuff, but like Em, after a while I had exactly the same experience. I sort of went, ‘Actually this isn’t working for me.’ Because it’s all about men and males and I need to find the femaleness of it. And so then actually I changed and started looking at modern female politicians, which was much more helpful.

But all these stuff that I did look at, still actually didn’t ... ultimately I feel did inform me. It’s just that it wasn’t ultimately as useful as maybe some of the more modern influences. But it’s definitely there. My script is covered in pictures of Rome and ancient objects and ancient images from that era, but it’s also now covered with female politicians and all sorts of other things. So yeah, I had a really similar experience and took a while to find the femaleness of the character.

EMILY HAVEA: Yes. And that being said, like now at show 50, I’d be super interested. I actually really can’t wait to see the exhibition and go see all these historical artefacts and see where I am now can relate to that and what I can take from that.

GHENOA GELA: Sorry, just adding. What’s quite interesting is Casca because Casca is also a male conspirator. Like I never ever saw Casca as a man ever. Like as soon as I saw the name and that was my person, then I was like, ‘Ah yes, cool. That’s me.’ I just instantly went, ‘That’s me’, which was quite [inaudible]. I just find that interesting because I didn’t think about it the way that you guys did.

CAST MEMBER: But also as a historical [inaudible].

GHENOA GELA: Yes, yes, no, I know.

CAST MEMBER: Famous historically [crosstalk].

GHENOA GELA: So to not have that journey, yeah, it’s quite interesting to hear that you guys had to do a thing where I was just like, ‘Ah yes, this [inaudible] me.’

JAMES EVANS: I think, and then as a director, definitely looking back on ancient Rome is powerful in a way to ... when you hear some of the images like Cassius refers to Caesar and says, ‘Why man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus.’ And so you look back on those old images of the Apollo of Rhodes, which may have stood across the entrance way to the city with ships sailing in under his legs.

KENNETH RANSOM: There was a Game of Thrones image like that.

James Evans: Yes.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: Yeah, absolutely. Definitely.

JAMES EVANS: But then on the other hand, thinking of modern images and ideas of the Senate. And I’ve got ... in my script, I got ‘Keating screaming unrepresentative swill’, which was how he saw the Senate. And perhaps that’s how some of the people in ancient Rome saw the Senate as well. The Senators all think of themselves very much as representing the people, but I mean really, they represent the wealthy men of that system, but not really the people, do they?

LILY WITHYCOMBE: From an audience perspective, I realise that I’ve seen women cast in male roles in other Shakespearian plays before, but at the beginning, especially when there was the part about, she gave him the crown and he refused it and she gave it to him again. I was thinking, she, she, who? And then I realised you were using female pronouns and that actually, that was ... I realised I’ve never found it jarring to see women playing male roles, but the first time I heard the female pronoun, that was when I did find it a bit jarring and then completely slipped into it.

JAMES EVANS: Yeah, look, I’ve caught some flack about that. There’s no doubt about it. I take that on board, I did that,that was my fault. But interestingly that I also ... I went very closely over this script and I de-gendered a lot of the language because of Marcus ... because Brutus and Cassius talk a lot about ‘men’ and ‘he’, and this is what men are doing and I just snipped some of that out as we went along and then just shifted some of the agenda language into ‘she’ and ‘her’ for Anthony and Octavius as well.

: And I found that it sat really well with audiences mostly seeing women assuming these powerful positions and especially the image at the end with these two young women of colour standing up and they’re going to be the next leaders of the next generation. I think it’s quite a strong image to end in the play. That’s always what I had in my mind when I was casting it. So, unfortunately I don’t apologise for that.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: No, no one is asking you to, I really applaud you for it.

JAMES EVANS: No, absolutely. What I would say is that ... and what I say to my students all the time is you can’t damage Shakespeare, like King Lear had a happy ending for 150 years after Shakespeare died. Shakespeare gets changed and played with and toyed and thrown around and given a flavour of the time over the centuries, and it will keep changing and it will keep going back to the original and keep shifting. And this is the malleability of Shakespeare and why we all love working with that language so much.

KENNETH RANSOM: The casting gives the Caesar/Mark Antony relationship, a different feel, a different twist. Abbott, Credlin maybe? That’s a reference. Yeah, something like that. So there’s a different feeling for it than the traditional feeling. I mean, Caesar and Antony loved each other and they expressed it. But I think in this case, there’s a different element because it’s man, woman. Do you know what I mean? It makes it a different kind of dynamic.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: I was really moved by that relationship particularly I think in this performance. My next question though is actually for Jemwel, and this is really about I guess about the Shakespearian language and considering that Julius Caesar was written in the late 16th century and it’s written in a language that can be really hard to read I think for most people beyond specialists today. Why do you think that it still resonates with audiences today in the 21st century? And also that we can understand it?

JEMWEL DANAO: Well, I believe that the issues that Shakespeare has written has this uncanny similarity that what we are facing right now in our modern society. I mean all you have to do is look at Australian politics. I mean, how many prime ministers have been toppled by political factions and former allies. And a quote that manages to stay with me is, ‘How many ages hence shall this lofty scene be acted over in states unknown, unborn and accents yet unborn.’ And that quote really does pack a punch. I mean, you just look at the course of history and how many times it’s happened over and over again. I think that’s why this play has really stood the test of time.

And this plays are meant to be performed. I mean, performing my character, it didn’t come alive until I actually got onto the floor and his ideas started to really drop in. And so it really is an exhilarating place to spend one’s time as an actor in the theatre and as an audience member.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: Yes. Wonderful. This question is for Sara. Is there a particular piece from your character or any other character really, that seems very modern in tone and can you recite it?

SARA ZWANGOBANI: I can’t recite it because both the ones I’m thinking of are dialogues not speeches. But one is near the end of the play, a scene between Brutus and Cassius and Octavius and Anthony where they face off. And basically sort of do a bit of chest beating at each other. But actually reminds me of modern politics, like people standing across the roster from each other and having a go. That’s very much what these four are doing and I’d love to recite it for you, but I can’t because we’re not all here. So that very much, I think it’s very modern. And the other part is Casca’s discussion with Brutus and Cassius, partly because it’s not written in verse. Thank you. Just a little back there. It’s written in prose. But also the nature of the discussion. It’s two people sort of saying, ‘So what happened?’ And Casca’s saying, ‘Well, this happened.’ I think that very much is conversations that happen all the time. I think that’s also a very modern moment in the piece.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: Yes, well. Russell, I have a question for you. So at the heart of Julius Caesar is politics, this is a political play. And in the late Republic, Rome is divided into two political camps, you have the conservatives, the Optimates, and populist leaders or the Populares. And it seems that very little has changed in politics today. My question is really, do you think that there’s a particular resonance or relevance in Canberra with this kind of play or does it have the same kind of reception throughout Australia?

RUSSELL SMITH: It’s actually really interesting, but when we started this tour, I was talking to Sara about ... and Sara is from Canberra. And she was telling ... and this is actually my first time here and she ... you were telling me that people are up-to-date in regards to politics and it is something that is discussed a lot in Canberra. What I’ve actually found really interesting when people have seen the show, I actually had one of my friends in WA,his mother came and saw the show. And Robin never goes to the theatre and she literally just came and saw the show because I was in it, which is very sweet. But she sat down afterwards and then proceeded to break down the relevance of now and how the themes within the show are so relevant right now.

It’s really interesting even that we go ... that there are two, basically two political powers. And it would seem this is kind of ... one of the things I really love about theatre, and I actually took a break in coming back to it again, was I missed the conversations and that was one of my favourite things about coming into the room and sitting with the script and then the conversations that take place between the creatives and the actors and everyone on board is ... and you are drawing relevance from here, there and everywhere.

But if we’re looking at ... we had to talk about Trump and we talked about Australian politics and then even we discussed how Trump is so hands-on I suppose with the people in regards to he’s on Twitter and he is very much of the people, one would say. And then we kind of [crosstalk 00:29:24].

KENNETH RANSOM: [crosstalk 00:29:25] the populace.

RUSSELL SMITH: Yes, he was, exactly.

KENNETH RANSOM: Like Caesar.

Russ Smith: Yes, just like Caesar. But what has been really interesting in my experience, and I think we’ve done 24 venues, 25 venues around Australia is that everyone is really talking about it him and making those comparisons to today.

SARA ZWANGOBANI: I just might add to that. I personally was super looking forward to Canberra because it’s my hometown. But also because, like I was talking to Russ, I was like, ‘They’re gonna just love this play in Canberra.’ But for me, personally, already doing the speech, ‘Friends, Romans …’, I can hear ... and Em picked up on this, the reactions from the audience are different. They are much more aware of the levels in the speech. I can hear react, yeah in Canberra, and Em hears it because she comes down.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: In what way?

SARA ZWANGOBANI: They get the nuance, the political nuance of it a lot more, the manipulation a lot more. They enjoy it very quickly. They understand what Antony’s trying to do much faster than other places.

Audience: And a lot more laughs [inaudible 00:30:33].

SARA ZWANGOBANI: A lot more laughs. Everyone’s like ... And there’s like this really knowing laughs like the snickering all the way through. And then at the end, where I’ve never ever got a laugh before when I say, ‘Now let it work.’ And everyone’s like, ‘Yeah, she did it. Yeah, she did.’ So it’s like and I’m ... for me, it’s great. I love Canberra for starters, but also I knew that the Canberra audiences would get it a lot more. So that’s my experience because I have a particular role that is that role, political role.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: That’s really interesting. I was born in Newcastle originally, I’m not from Canberra, I’ve been here for the last four years. But in the crescendo to your speech just before intermission, I realised at the end that I was leaning forward my hands up on my neck like this. I felt kind of terrified. And I was like, ‘Oh, sit back, be cool’ Yes.

All right, wonderful. My next question, I’m coming back to James, and this is just ... I’d like to know about the thinking behind the staging, but also the stage design of the production as well.

JAMES EVANS: Yeah. So we work very closely with the design team, Anna Tregloan, our designer is extremely experienced in set and costume design for many years. And she and I talked for over a year about what this show might look like. Now, Julius Caesar is usually done in Australia and around the world in suits as a corporate boardroom or political or very overtly political play, which it is. But we decided we wanted to shift it into a more, almost a more abstract space. And so our version of Julius Caesar is almost in this kind of blasted post-apocalyptic world where these last few remnants of power, people are kind of clinging to the last remnants of power and trying to pull this society back together again.

So the look of our production is definitely as non-traditional as you can possibly get. Not only are there no togas, but there are certainly no ... there are no suits and ties and anything like that as well. There’s a lot of just kind of found objects, eclectic mix of costume. Once they get on the battlefield, there’s all sorts of different army kind of jackets and things that we throw on to show that these people have just been kind of out in the dirt for months and just try to pull together the last remnants of what they can.

I have a philosophy underpinning why I do something like that, and it’s this. I don’t believe in spoon-feeding metaphor to an audience. I keep saying this and it’s kind of crystallising in my head now. I understand the impulse to cast Caesar as Trump, and they did that in New York to great effect last year. Remember, they did it in the public theatre. They got a guy, put a blonde wig on him, red tie, he did the voice, everything.

CAST MEMBER: And the show was [inaudible 00:33:32].

JAMES EVANS: That’s right. So then there were protests, and of course that’s great for a theatre company because it’s publicity and our head of marketing is here today and she would love a bit of publicity like that, I’m sure. But not so great in the sense that then right wing individuals started sending death threats to theatre companies, and not just in New York but just indiscriminately around America, just ‘How dare you do Shakespeare and show Trump being assassinated’. And of course they missed the point because Shakespeare is not saying ‘It’s good to assassinate Trump’, he’s saying, ‘If you assassinate Trump then you unleash something much darker than you could possibly have imagined.’

Anyway, so I get the impulse to be very, very clear with our metaphors. But I also like to trust the audience to be able to draw those conclusions for themselves. I like to think that each audience member will have a different interpretation and engagement with the play depending on their experience and where they’re at in their life rather than me plonking it on for them and saying ‘Caesar is Trump’, bang. That’s a fait accompli. Do you know what I mean? So that might be a little more difficult for audiences, but I think that our audiences are up for the challenge, and so that’s why I did what I did.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: I have to say though, and this is the fourth lecture in the Rome series and in every single one of them, Trump has come up. And they’ve been comparisons with Nero, with Caesar, Domitian. I mean, he’s been compared with so many Roman emperors and Roman political leaders that it almost loses its currency; like it almost becomes generic. But what I think is really interesting is we haven’t mentioned Barack Obama yet in this discussion. Can I ask you and Kenneth about, is there any resonance with Barack Obama in this particular production?

KENNETH RANSOM: No. It is tricky. Obama was a very inclusive leader. He doesn’t evoke ... Caesar, Obama, it doesn’t really mesh.

SARA ZWANGOBANI: But they did do a production in America where they had an Obama playing Caesar as well. And funnily enough, there were no protests and it didn’t get anywhere near as much publicity.

KENNETH RANSOM: I guess you could put that metaphor on, but the type of leader Obama, was, is, doesn’t work as well for that.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: I think of him as more of a philosopher, king leader, if I were to look back to the ancient world.

KENNETH RANSOM: Yeah. I mean, Trump is a populist and a demagogue of sorts. So there you go, it works. Whereas Obama, it’s a tricky one. You could do it, I suppose, you could force that metaphor, but it would be an odd mix I think. Yeah.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: All right. I have a question for Maryanne. Julius Caesar has given us some very famous lines and I’m wondering what your favourite parts or lines are from the play and if you could recite them for us.

MARYANNE FONCECA: Definitely there are so many. And after 50 plus shows, we’ll find ourselves backstage when people are doing their scenes and just reciting them. Yeah, one of which was the one that Jim recited just before. I find myself sitting on the truck during Brutus’s big speech and one line that I really love is when he says, ‘And like a serpent would’... how does it go? It goes like a [crosstalk 00:37:09] ‘And like a serpent’ …

CAST MEMBER: Ask Brutus.

MARYANNE FONCECA: Something hatch— ‘And hatched would grow mischievous and kill him in the shell’. That’s it. I paraphrased there, obviously. But I really love that because for me it just ... it encompasses so much imagery about his rise to leadership and what that means in an animalistic form and kind of encapsulates Brutus’s relationship to what needs to be done.

I also really love when Emily playing Octavius says ‘Where are these bloody men?’ It’s so short, but it’s such a punchy line. And I think—

CAST MEMBER: [inaudible 00:37:52]

MARYANNE FONCECA: Absolutely. And it encapsulates the current climates that is in our modern world at present. I think the final line for me as well is quite powerful because it’s quite incongruous with what is happening and that is also from Emily when she says ‘And call the fields’ ... ‘So  call the fields and let’s away to part the glories of this happy day’.

CAST MEMBER: ‘So I called the field to rest and let’s away to part the glories of this happy day’.

MARYANNE FONCECA: ‘To rest and let’s away to part the glories of this happy day’. Correct. That’s it. And the fact that she’s saying happy day and there are bodies, people have committed suicide, there are bodies that are on stage, people have killed, I think it’s really powerful to consider that there are two ends of the spectrum in what is defined as a happy day, especially in the context of the play and history. But there’s so many lines, so many lines, but yeah. Just a few of them.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: Yes. Thank you. All right, Neveen, this is a question. This is something we’ve been talking about and thinking about here at the National Museum, and it’s how do you bring contemporary Australia into ancient Rome or ancient Rome into contemporary Australia?

NEVEEN HANNA: It’s a huge question.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: Sorry [crosstalk 00:39:11] this way.

NEVEEN HANNA: We’ve answered it in so many ways today already, with almost every question, we’ve touched on it. I guess the vehicle that’s being used here is Shakespeare and he’s written this play with such rich, colourful text that provokes and invokes images in every line. And I guess that’s why ... I mean it takes us to a world of fantasy, we’re imagining these events and they’re not just words, they’re layers and layers of imagery. And the more we listen to this play, as we do backstage, things sink in deeper, we understand things more and at another level. There’s one thing, just last night I was thinking about in Antony’s speech and she says, ‘The poor doth cry and Caesar has wept, ambition should be made of sterner stuff’.

And so I found myself standing there for the next five minutes thinking about that line. And I guess also the story of Julius Caesar and he was such an amazing human being when you read about the things that he achieved and where he got himself, such a tall, tall poppy. These senators conspired together to protect themselves. We’re looking at universal themes of survival, of people finding their place in the world and protecting their children, which is what we do in so many different ways. And love and loyalty and responsibility, and even these conspirators who you might see as murderers, Brutus tells us, ‘No, we are not murderers, we are purgers’. Correct?

And so we’re all heroes in this story. We’re all out there trying to do the right thing. And I think that links us because contemporary Australia in this play is the way we have set it out with our set, the costumes that we wear and we’re still telling the same story and we obviously can all see the links with our politics here in Australia and America and all over the world, that these things are happening all the time. They’re universal themes of ambition. And ancient Rome will never leave us, we love ancient Rome. The beauty and architecture of Rome and the people of Rome, it’s still so relevant today. We have a Rome exhibition, still everybody’s flocking to see this wonderful exhibition because it is our history.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: Yes, absolutely.

NEVEEN HANNA: Is that good enough?

LILY WITHYCOMBE: Yes, that was a perfect answer. Really, perfect. Well, this has been an amazing discussion. I know that there’s going to be people in the audience who’d like ask some questions as well. So what we’re going to do now is have questions from the audience, so just put your hand up and Heidi will come round or Penny with a mic.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: We’re talking about Trump, but if we take a Mark Anthony, Brutus, and Julius Caesar, three Australian politicians that resonate with those three characters, say over the last six, seven years, who would you identify?

LILY WITHYCOMBE: Oh, good question.

JAMES EVANS: The question is in Australian politics, who’s Mark Antony, Brutus and Caesar. Yeah. And who’s Cassius, by the way? Because there’s ... who’s the sneaky ones? Go on.

CAST MEMBER: [inaudible 00:43:00] Oh, come on brain. Just the other week, he switched sides at the last minute. Was it [inaudible 00:43:10]?

JAMES EVANS: So Cormann is Cassius. Okay, good. Yes. Although when you go back to the Labor one, I mean the last one that happened, who was it? Shorten. It was Shorten who flipped Gillard to Rudd, wasn’t he, at the end? And caused that downfall.

KENNETH RANSOM: At the moment, Turnbull is Cesar. At the moment. Yes. And Brutus.

JAMES EVANS: Who is the principal, the philosopher who’s doing things for the right reasons, but ultimately [inaudible 00:43:55]?

KENNETH RANSOM: We don’t have that.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: Did you want ... when the political —

Audience: [inaudible 00:44:06].

KENNETH RANSOM: Julie Bishop. Julie Bishop.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: When the sort of the coup was happening in Canberra, were you all just thinking, oh, this is great. What a happy coincidence.

SARA ZWANGOBANI: I think we were in a [inaudible 00:44:27]. We were talking about ... We had a group [inaudible 00:44:32]-

We have a WhatsApp thing, so we can all talk to each other on our phones without actually having to call all the time and it was going between Caesar, Antony and Brutus. We were like just messaging, we were transfixed in our hotel rooms just watching it all day and messaging each other and yes, it was crazy. But where were we? I cannot remember.

CAST MEMBER: I think it [inaudible 00:44:50].

RUSSELL SMITH: Here’s the thing, this has happened so many fricking times in Australian politics that I remember where we were for the AFL grand final, but I don’t know where we were for when we got a new prime minister. No idea.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: I was actually thinking that ... I did a bit of a thought experiment of thinking what would have happened if it was ancient Rome. I don’t know if anyone else was playing that game. And I was thinking that Dutton would have come in with the Praetorian Guard, killed everyone. This is ancient Rome, I’m not drawing any [inaudible 00:45:36]. And yes, he would be the king.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I have a question. Is it only in Canberra where every question from the audience is about politics? Is it political? I have to ask.

NEVEEN HANNA: It’s not political.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’d like to know how many of the cast have actually seen the exhibition yet and what they think of it so far?

MARYANNE FONCECA: We really want it to go this morning, but we’ve been flat out. So no, not yet. We’re going to see it this week. We’re all very, very excited. Very excited to see it.

EMILY HAVEA: We’re halfway through it. So we saw the first half [inaudible 00:46:18] we’re going back to the second half afterwards. Yeah, we’re doing a show after this, so.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: This is not a question, it’s a comment. Back in the 1970s, so I was at a school where I suspected it was Grace’s mother was a teacher. Was your mother a teacher?

SARA ZWANGOBANI: My mother?

Audience: Yes.

SARA ZWANGOBANI: She taught for 40 years in the Canberra system.

Audience: That’s right. And at the same school was a guy, I think he was the English master who’d just come back from England and he declared that Shakespeare was out, we should not teach Shakespeare in schools. And he didn’t include it in that particular time because people could design their own curriculum. And I just wish they were both here now to see this.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: There’s always someone up the back.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: This is actually a question about how the way the Bell Shakespeare Company works. So do you guys kind of work for the Bell Shakespeare Company and sort of on hold for them all the time? Because this is a big, 52, like you’re doing 100 shows, that’s huge. How does that work?

JAMES EVANS: Yes. For a theatre gig, these days, this is long. Back in the day when people, young actors would graduate from a drama school, they’d pick up their backpack and go do two years of fortnightly rep. You just go and you just learn a new show every two weeks and just do it. And they would just go and tour around the country. These days, actors aren’t so keen to do that. There’s film and telly and there’s other things and various other activities. So it is unusual in Australian theatre, a tour of this length. However, we wish we could afford, and one day we will be able to afford having a full-time ensemble of actors who will be able to train during the day, work on Shakespeare text and language, perform shows, go on the road, come back and that way you build skills across time.

But so far, this ensemble is the best example of that in this country, I think, where you get this long to work on a show and to delve into it and to do it again and again and again. And —

SARA ZWANGOBANI: There’s also the players, the players tour.

JAMES EVANS: That’s right. Of course, we have the players who are our education ensemble and they go and do the same thing but in schools. So they tour around the country, and boy, that is a real training ground for a young actor where you walk into a school and that audience —

SARA ZWANGOBANI: Two hundred Year Nine boys at 9 AM, Romeo and Juliette.

James Evans: Doing the Scottish play.

KENNETH RANSOM: We’re going into foreign territory.

JAMES EVANS: But a wonderful way for a young actor to learn their craft, to learn how to tell story with great clarity, how to connect with an audience in the way that Shakespeare’s language allows us to do. And that young actors’ programme also encourages young people in schools to see Shakespeare, something fun and exciting because the shows are inevitably exciting. And kids see the shows, and they go, ‘Oh, okay, Shakespeare is not something boring, dusty on the shelf. It’s actually something that lives and breathes, and it’s about me.’ And that programme has been going for 28 years. John Bell himself did it 28 years ago and it’s kind of at the heart and core what we do at Bell Shakespeare.

GHENOA GELA: So we’re all individual performers that get brought together, which was really amazing for me because if they had a core crew, like if Bell Shakespeare actually had a core crew, I wouldn’t be sitting here because I was ... you would need particular skills to be able to be a part of the ensemble. But yeah, we’re a whole bunch of boss independent individuals.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I find very interesting your comments of the challenge of a female performer taking a male role and if we consider that for thousands of years, male performers had been performing as female, I don’t think they have any problem with that. Why do you think that is? That is for us was a challenge, was for males was, of course, culturally acceptable as well because women wouldn’t go on stage, but I found it had a difference, quite intriguing.

SARAH ZWANGOBANI: I think, it’s a great comment, but I think that the styles and tastes of audiences and therefore performers have changed dramatically over the years. And so I think ... well, I imagine back in the day to be a stereotype or an archetype of a female or someone different to you was perfectly acceptable and great and audiences would respond very well. But these days I think actors, I speak for myself at least, are interested in getting inside a person’s brain to produce a complex and nuanced human being that’s living in front of an audience and therefore that’s what people connect with, which is the truth of your performance. And so I think that’s why I found it difficult as opposed to maybe back then when it was just like, ‘Ugh, put on a wig go for your life, be a woman, la la la la’. That’s what women do, right? Yes, sure.

The other thing that for me personally is I actually had to give myself permission, to be honest. And is it because I’m a woman or is it because I’m just Sara Zwangobani? I don’t know, but I had to give myself permission in a way to claim that power that was written into Antony. And that took some time. I think it actually took time in the performance actually and luckily we’re doing this play so many times. In fact, because that’s becoming more clear to me that I didn’t need to ever get that permission. In fact, women have just as much power and strength. But I feel like that was a bit of it as well. Yes.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: While you’re here in Canberra, Shakespeare is alive and well in Sydney. I just wonder whether any of you have seen the Pop-up Globe Productions in Moore Park and what you thought of them?

EMILY HAVEA: I saw it in Melbourne. I saw Othello in Melbourne, which was at the Pop-up Globe and had a New Zealand company. It was incredible and there was lots of traditional language. It was an awesome blend of multi-culture and Othello. I would strongly recommend it. I don’t know if it’s still on in Sydney, if it’s still that same one or?

MAYANNE FONCECA: Jim and I actually on our day off in Sydney decided to go see Shakespeare at the Globe. So we saw Merchant of Venice and it was really great. They had a predominantly all male cast, but they also had a transgender female playing the lead and that was really fantastic to see that representation on stage. It was also really fascinating to see it in the context of the Globe and to understand the text from that kind of setting because you’ve got the heavens, you’ve got the people on the floor, the ground thing. So it was really interesting to understand Shakespeare’s text from that experience. Yes.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: [inaudible 00:54:32] and there was a slit throat scene and there’s blood on the groundlings and I said to the fellow, one [inaudible 00:54:42] and so I recommended he come to see Macbeth, don’t be a groundling and don’t wear a white shirt.

EMILY HAVEA: That’s a no for me.

MARYANNE FONCECA: Yeah. And I think they poured beer. Like someone in, I think, in Merchant of Venice, they were drinking beer and then they throw it on the groundlings. Yeah. So it’s lots of fun.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Audience participation.

MARYANNE FONCECA: It is, it is. Yes.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: This is a question for the director, you said that have ... this particular play, you’re looking at an adaptation that sort of from a dystopian world perspective. And I’ve seen a few adaptations now where obviously they’re not just setting it straight in the time in which it was set. So when you’re doing that and then making it a sort of a retelling in a different world, just using basically the scaffold of the play. Are you doing that from the ground up or are you actually reading and sourcing your ideas from other people who are already writing in this space?

JAMES EVANS: No, we get our ideas from all sorts of inspiration. So for example, our designer, Anna, went to India and one of the images that really struck her was these huge empty billboards structures dotted all over the countryside. And a billboard was my first thought because I was thinking of the kind of Chairman Mao, the images of him in a bucolic kind of rural setting, leading the people onto happiness and enjoy, whereas in fact those were placed in some pretty bleak areas.

So I had that image in my head, and then Anna saw these empty billboard structures as well, which seemed to be that someone had convinced the landowner to put the structure up and they might be able to sell advertising, but they never have been able to. And so it represented an empty promise, which of course advertising itself and billboards do anyway. So there were layers of that.

Also, she got a glimpse of the foggy light at just outside Mumbai, and just kind of driving through this thick fog where you could barely see a couple of metres in front of you. And that’s coming to the latter part of our show as well. And then really just we’re on Pinterest just throwing images back and forth at each other to find the look of the show. But ultimately, I’ve got to come back to the language. Shakespeare’s language has to be unlocked and free to be able to express itself in multiple and possibly ambiguous ways. The more we start to lock down meaning for the audience, the more we’re locking off pathways for the audience to explore it for themselves. So I try and do an interpretation that opens the play out rather than shuts it down.

LILY WITHYCOMBE: That’s going to have to be our last question because I’m conscious now that it’s 1:30. So I just wanted to say thank you so much everyone for coming and sharing your time with us and your experiences. This has just been truly magical. Thank you so much.

Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007-19. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 05 April 2019

Return to Top