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Bell Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: let slip the dogs of war

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“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”

For a play written around 1599 about a Roman politician assassinated in 44 BCE, that one line certainly seems to sum up Australia’s recent political and media landscape rather nicely.

Bell Shakespeare has been touring Julius Caesar for some time, and the cast and crew must have been watching the federal leadership spill wondering if a Canberra theatre company was staging a rival production.

Emily Havea, who plays a double role in the production, agrees the timing of events was startling. “Some of the company’s executives were actually in Parliament House that same day to meet with members of parliament. They had front row seats to what was going on.”

Emily Havea and Russell Smith. Credit: Prudence Upton.

A brief overview of the play starts with the conspiracy by members of the Roman senate to assassinate Julius Caesar, whose personal power they fear is turning the republic into a dictatorship. Among the conspirators are Caesar’s beloved friend Brutus and Cassius, who both think they are acting in the interest of the greater good.

Ignoring his wife’s premonition of his death, Caesar is brutally stabbed by his former friends. This sets off a chain of events that leads to civil war between the conspirators and the allied Mark Antony and Caesar’s heir Octavius.

Betrayal by friends, political backstabbing—why does it sound so familiar? “Cry havoc! And let slip the dogs of war.”

Emily says the recent political turmoil makes coming to the capital all the more exciting, as here is an audience attuned to political machinations. The relevance to contemporary events isn’t the only thing that makes this a fresh take on a classic story—the casting has reworked some of the key players from male to female.

Emily plays both Caesar’s wife Calphurnia, whose premonition of his death is ignored, and Octavius, Caesar’s teenage nephew who ultimately rises to rule the Roman world.

“It is such a great double up,” says Emily. “Being a woman, Calphurnia’s worries are dismissed and not taken seriously, and yet something very bad does happen. Yet I don’t have time to feel the frustration of being overlooked as I transform on stage into Octavius by changing clothes in front of the audience.”

Emily Havea and Sara Zwangobani. Credit: Prudence Upton.

Mark Antony has also experienced a gender swap and is played by Sara Zwangobani. Director James Evans doesn’t just have female leads playing male roles, the characters themselves have been recast as women.

“Some of the dialogue has been subtly changed, with references to ‘she’ rather than ‘he’,” Emily explains. “As an actor, it doesn’t feel like you’re putting on a male persona although it has been a constant juggle.

“A kid at one of our Melbourne Q&As asked if I played it as male or female and the feminist in me immediately responded as ‘definitely female’. The question really made me think about it though and I started to incorporate more male characteristics into the persona.”

Emily doesn’t shy from the challenges, having been part of the Bell Players in 2016 she says she can perform Shakespeare anywhere. “I cut my teeth on Shakespeare over nine months in the Players. It was so rewarding to see the kids open up to the plays, you don’t get that in the theatre normally.

“In Bankstown I saw more kids who looked like me, a woman of colour, than I ever have before and it was the first time I realised how important diversity is. This production of Julius Caesar is similar, we have five women of colour. It’s rare to see a cast like this where actors aren’t cast to play particular races or ethnicities.”

Emily Havea. Credit: Prudence Upton.

The cast and crew will be on the road for 100 shows in total, with eight shows in Canberra. “The crew are absolutely legends,” Emily says. “They’re like parents who look after us so much.

“Not only that—they transport this huge set. It’s a massive structure that has bright coloured billboards at the start showing Caesar standing with his arm outstretched towards hyper-real green hills. The images hark back to mid 20th century styles of propaganda, and over the course of the play that get torn and ruined as the city descends into civil war. We turn this huge structure ourselves and we climb over it. It’s heavy and when the cast is on it it’s even heavier. It’s an impressive site.”

After this tour with Bell Shakespeare, Emily is moving on to new projects. “I’m taking a ‘hello life’ trip to the United States and then I’m coming back to Parramatta for a play about female fighter pilots.”

With gender no barrier to bringing other Shakespeare characters to life, Emily says she’d also love to play Benedict, the cynical yet ultimately romantic ex-soldier in Much Ado About Nothing. “Swapping the roles for that would be very interesting, and if it can be done with Julius Caesar, imagine what could happen in other plays.”

the essentials

What: Bell Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
Where: The Canberra Theatre Centre
When: 12-20 October
How much: A Reserve $67.50 to $81.50; Under 30s $40.50 to $44.50

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