Shakespeare In The Park returns with a modern take on Julius Caesar

Malaysian actress Jo Kukathas will play the titular role in Julius Caesar at Fort Canning Green.
Malaysian actress Jo Kukathas will play the titular role in Julius Caesar at Fort Canning Green.PHOTO: FAIZAL MUSTAFA PHOTOGRAPHY

Shakespeare In The Park returns after a gap year with a contemporary take on Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's drama about the assassination of a charismatic political leader, gets a contemporary makeover under the Singapore Repertory Theatre's (SRT) outdoor event Shakespeare In The Park next month.

Malaysian actress Jo Kukathas will play Caesar in the performances at Fort Canning Green from May 2 to 27.

Shakespeare In The Park returns after a gap year while SRT raised funds to continue the outdoor productions. It was first held in 1997 with Hamlet and became an annual affair from 2011 to 2016.

In 2016, as SRT staged Romeo And Juliet, it announced that increasing production costs - from $1 million to $1.5 million a year - meant there would be no more outdoor theatre for a few years.

The company raised about $100,000 for Shakespeare In The Park last year and another fund-raiser is ongoing at giving.sg. This has raised around $78,000 so far. The company will still make a loss on Shakespeare In The Park, says its managing director Charlotte Nors, but thanks to donors, the deficit will be more manageable.

Kukathas, 56, played the nurse in Romeo And Juliet in 2016 and says she enjoys the picnic-like atmosphere of the outdoor performances: "You come, you have a good time and you fall in love with Shakespeare."

  • BOOK IT/ SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK - JULIUS CAESAR

  • WHERE: Fort Canning Green, Fort Canning Park

    WHEN: May 2 to 27, Wednesdays to Sundays, 7.30pm. May 9, 16 and 23 are school nights with large student groups.

    ADMISSION: From $45 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

This year, she takes on the major role of a politician grown so powerful that her good friend Brutus (Ghafir Akbar) is convinced that she must die for the sake of the nation.

Thomas Pang is Mark Antony, the silver-tongued protege who provokes civil war to avenge Caesar's death. Julie Wee plays Cassius, the "frenemy" who convinces Brutus that Caesar must die.

Director Guy Unsworth, a London-based theatre-maker who has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, cast Kukathas and Wee in traditionally male roles so that Julius Caesar reflected current times.

Kukathas says: "It's a reflection of current power structures. You couldn't have a political play today without female representation."

The narrative inspired by ancient Roman politics remains surprisingly relevant as populist politics gain traction around the world.

Last year in New York, Public Theatre's free Shakespeare In The Park Festival also staged Julius Caesar and Caesar was played by an actor in a blond wig styled to look like United States President Donald Trump. The show was lauded or deplored by people, depending on their political leanings.

SRT's Julius has been in the works for almost two years and comes as Malaysia prepares for elections and charismatic leaders dominate countries from the Philippines to China.

But Shakespeare did not write clear-cut heroes and villains, Kukathas says. Yes, Caesar is killed because even close friends worry that the leader holds too much power. However, the consequence of the assassination is a country torn apart.

"I like this version very much," the actress says. "(Both sides) are right and both wrong. We can say for this reason the assassination should have taken place and for this reason, the assassination should not have taken place."

In this staging, Rome becomes R.O.M.E., a gathering of world leaders where Caesar is one of the most powerful. Viewers who enter the park will be told to consider themselves "citizens" of this global empire and given chances to engage in the performance - but details are kept secret.

Kukathas is an acclaimed actress in Malaysia and Singapore, where she has won two acting awards at The Straits Times' annual Life Theatre Awards.

Shakespeare was often quoted to her and her siblings by their late father K. Das. He was former bureau chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review and author of The Musa Dilemma (1986), about then Malaysian deputy prime minister Musa Hitam's decision to quit the government of Mahathir Mohamad.

In his book about a rift between political allies, every chapter was prefaced by a quotation from Julius Caesar. Kukathas remembers sitting on the floor helping her father proof-read galleys.

"I feel very strongly for this play," she says. "It was a part of my childhood."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2018, with the headline 'Seizing on Caesar's tale'. Print Edition | Subscribe