Theatre buffs will no doubt have already purchased tickets to Bell Shakespeare’s latest production of Julius Caesar but for those of us less consistently cultured, there’s another reason to get excited: The play will move ahead with a stellar line-up of immensely talented, ethnically diverse, female performers at its forefront.
And though some may argue that a play originally written in 1599 and chronicling the life and death of the most famous Roman Emperor (and his not-so-loyal compatriot, Brutus) is not one that easily lends itself to central female roles, they’d be wrong.
NIDA graduate, Emily Havea is one of the production’s leads, expertly navigating a double-role as Calphurnia, Julius Caesar’s wife and Octavius, the future leader of Rome. She says the dynamic of this blend as well as Bell Shakespeare’s interpretation of the original characters, makes her role as a performer all the more interesting.
“It’s a really fun double to play”, she tells me, “going from being the wife of a leader to a leader and to just play with that balance.”
With an impressive career already established in film and television (including a recent stint on Foxtel’s acclaimed Wentworth) Emily says she has a unique love for the immediacy of theatre “and seeing the response of people firsthand.”
Maryanne Fonceca, another NIDA alumni who plays the role of Brutus’ wife Portia, says the sheer command of her character in the play was what gripped her from the outset.
“Unlike a lot of Shakespeare’s plays in which his female characters are the love interest and they’re quite subservient, Portia is a character who isn’t afraid to challenge the male in her life and hold a mirror up to him and confront him,” she says.
“Portia only appears in two scenes in Julius Caesar but for me, the relationship she has with Brutus—she packs a punch.”
As young actor of mixed heritage (Anglo Indian/Nepalese) Maryanne’s portrayal of Portia is in line with her greater aspirations as a woman in the industry. “Being surrounded by a strong team of powerful women in the cast,” is hugely motivating and inspiring she says.
“One of my biggest aspirations currently is for the representation of people of colour, women of colour, for those stories to be at the forefront of the industry more.”
Emily agrees, describing the diversity of the Julius Caesar cast as “a blessing” particularly in the current social climate.
“Five out of five women in the cast are women of colour, which is just incredible,” she says.
“For such a mainstage company presenting Shakespeare — which is synonymous with an old, white person—to have such a diverse cast is a blessing and so much fun to be a part of,” she says.
It’s something both women feel distinguishes the ethos of Bell Shakespeare from other performing arts companies.
“I think what’s really interesting about James Evans and the company here, is they take a really strong standpoint on empowering Shakespeare’s female characters, which I mean obviously for the time, wasn’t what Shakespeare wrote,” explains Emily.
Maryanne says the content of Shakespeare’s original works are given new life in this way. “It’s so important for the content of Bell Shakespeare productions to be relevant and hold meaning for young people in society,” she says.
While Bell Shakespeare remains ahead of the curve in embracing diversity, both women feel the Australian industry more broadly still has a long way to go and efforts need to be better than tokenistic.
Drawing on examples of current Netflix productions, Maryanne says that the types of shows common in the UK and the US, unlike Australia, are not about the “otherness” of characters but rather their unique experiences as humans.
“They have such a body of work that represents people from different backgrounds,” she says. “But it’s not about the colour of their skin, it’s about their experience as teenagers or mothers or families.”
It’s a belief shared by her castmate who says the Australian performing arts industry suffers from physical geographical isolation but also its damaged past and complex relationship with its Indigenous people.
“It’s a huge thing that holds Australia back”, Emily says. “If we can’t look back to the genocide of the past how do we expect to move forward in a positive way?”
“Australia is such a young country as well, and we’re still finding our identity and our relationship to each other” Maryanne agrees. “We’re making traction, but there’s still a long way to go.”
In terms of their careers and capacity to excel however, both women have high hopes and cite #MeToo and #TimesUp as watershed movements for an industry historically tainted by sexual misconduct.
“I think it’s a really galvanising time to be a female in any industry and even more so in a creative industry where I think our job as performers is to reflect to society,” Emily says.
“It’s had a huge impact.”