Bell Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
The Bell Shakespeare Company's latest production, Julius Caeser, is currently open at the Sydney Opera House and Mich was thrilled to speak with Sara Zwangobani about her role as Marc Antony. Sara spoke to us about what it is like to take on an iconic role like Antony, what the process has been like and how the role will continue to develop with every performance she gives. A really great read - thank you Sara - have a look for yourself below:
What first appealed to you about this production and when you auditioned, did you go in for the role of Marc Antony specifically?
Julius Caesar first appealed to me as a production because its muscularity, energy and themes make it, to my mind, one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, based on a period of history that is truly fascinating. It is not without dramaturgical flaws, but it has some of the greatest rhetoric that Shakespeare ever wrote and lines that are in the common vernacular to this day. I’m also interested in the way it examines the dangers inherent in political instability and mediates on the morality of using violence to achieve political ends.
I didn’t go in for the role of Marc Antony specifically. Bell Shakespeare asked me to do a general audition for the play, and later asked me if I’d be interested in playing Antony. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance!
What has attracted you to this role and how is it going about playing a role that has traditionally always been played by a male?
What’s not to be attracted to in this role for an actor?! Antony has emotion, passion, ruthlessness and is a masterful orator, declaiming one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare’s canon. It is an endlessly challenging role, not least because Antony’s interactions in the play are often working on multiple levels – she frequently masks her true agenda for the highest of stakes, so it becomes what the audience and Antony know to be true versus what the other characters in the world believe to be true. It is a role that can be continually mined for new revelations,
and requires a level of sophistication and nuance…I’m fairly certain I’ll still be trying to solve it when we wrap show #100!
As to playing a traditional male role, after some initial trepidation that any actor feels taking on a famous role, I embraced the challenge. In doing so I quickly realised that, while I did look at some of the real-world Antony’s history, the best way to service the character in our version was to forgo any thoughts of Antony as a male and explore entirely from a female-centric focus. That involved looking at female politicians and female soldiers, thinking about the ways in which women have to navigate the citadels of power and delving into the particular qualities of female rage and grief.
What can audiences expect from this production? How true is it to the Shakespearean word or has it been modernised? How does this impact the tone and feeling of the play?
Audiences can expect a sparse, muscular, relevant, sometimes stylised production, with an emphasis on the power and persuasion of language and how it can shape people’s perceptions of reality.
It remains very true to the Shakespearean word; while it has been judiciously edited and is set in a modern context, Shakespeare’s language is very much front and centre. The impact of the modern setting gives it greater relevance to a 21st century audience and hopefully allows them to draw comparisons with and raise questions about human behaviour of today.
What can today’s audiences hope to take away from this production of a well known classic and why do you think productions like this are still popular with Australian audiences?
I hope the audience takes away ideas! Their own ideas, sparked from the spectacle they have seen. The director, James Evans, has a strong belief about not spoon-feeding the audience metaphors or meaning but allowing them to draw their own conclusions, something I heartily advocate. So I think that this production is certainly an example of that.
Ultimately, I feel that these plays hold their popularity because they forgo simplistic renderings of heroes and villains and instead reveal the complexities and ambiguities of human nature, and, in the case of ‘Julius Caesar’, how the drive of personal agenda can sometimes override morality. We understand and can even empathise with the motivations of these characters, even when we don’t agree with their conclusions or their actions. Additionally, Shakespeare’s language is active and intense and quite beautiful and, as the famous voice coach Patsy Rodenburg once wrote, Shakespeare really likes people. I think the beauty of his words, and this quality of compassion for humanity in his works, are still very appealing to audiences.
Having worked in TV, Film and theatre, how different is the creative process across the different genres? And even within just theatre, how different has it been working with varying companies and what has your experience with Bell Shakespeare been like in particular?
The creative process across different performance genres can vary immensely. As an example, in theatre, due to its inbuilt structure of rehearsals, the process of character and story exploration is very collaborative. In TV and film that process can be far more solitary. While there is still some form of rehearsal, it is frequently not as intensive and actors often work on their character development in isolation, or one-on-one consultation with the director. Both processes have their creative challenges and rewards for an actor.
Working for different theatre companies can have a very different quality. Again, as an example, with high-end companies your working role is often well defined in a very professional setting, which can offer stability and a sharp focus for an actor’s creative output. With medium and lower-end companies, there can be more fluidity and sometimes a bit of a ‘wild-west’ feeling, which can be exciting.
Working for Bell Shakespeare has been nothing short of incredible. They care passionately about Shakespeare, about the arts, about education, about true and diverse representation on our stages and, most importantly, about the people they employ. They are at the forefront of employee care and my experience with them as a company has been one of the best of my career. They’re also just a great bunch of people!
What do you think will stay with you beyond this production about this particular character? What does Marc Antony have to say that you feel audiences can extract different meaning from now that a woman is finally taking on the role?
What will stay with me about Antony well beyond this production, and what I will miss, is her passion, intensity and single-minded conviction – once Antony is set upon a course there are no doubts in her mind as to the righteousness of her actions. That is not a trait that is common to me as, like most actors, I oftentimes see myriad sides to a situation, so it has been wonderful to play with in Antony.
I think it is up to the audiences to extract their own meaning from seeing Antony played by a woman. However, the responses I have had to this female version have been extraordinary, ranging from teary eyed enthusiasm about strong female representation from a father of four girls, to schoolgirls cheering, to claps on the back and wicked, knowing grins from a group of middle-aged women, to a couple of conservative, older men who said that, although it didn’t happen in reality, they like to think that after our version of the play, Antony and Octavius (also female) take over the world together and rule like the mythical Amazons.
But I have a candle in my dressing room that sums it up for me: it says “Fight like a girl”.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Favourite production you have ever seen?
I was in it – ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ with Cate Blanchett, Joel Edgerton and Robin McLeavy, and I got to watch it every night.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
Rome, New York…or Wakanda!
Dream role to perform?
Today…Lady Macbeth, Celie in ‘The Colour Purple’, Kaneka in Kushiel’s Legacy (a ‘Game of Thrones’ type book series), any Marvel superhero!
Plays or musicals?
Soooo many…almost anything Shakespeare…but first to mind – ‘Chicago’, for the Cell Block Tango!
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
I’m an avid reader and a perpetual student.
What’s next for you after this show?
Cuddling my four year old daughter for days!
Julius Caesar plays until November 25th and tickets are available here.
Sara Zwangobani in Julius Caesar - Photo Credit: Prudence Upton
Sara Zwangobani in Julius Caesar - Photo Credit: Prudence Upton