Interview with Jo Kukathas, who plays Julius Caesar in Shakespeare in the Park
Woman in charge
What a time to be alive. The Korean War was officially declared over after 65 years. The Malaysian opposition party defeated the Barisan Nasional coalition, its ruling government since independence. Singapore's the confirmed host for a historic meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un this June. In other words, sh*t just got real.
It's perhaps fitting then, that Singapore Repertory Theatre's production of Shakespeare in the Park is presenting the story of Julius Caesar. While you might already be familiar with the 400-year-old classic tale of the Roman leader and his friends and foes, Singapore Repertory Theatre's flipped the switch by adapting it for a contemporary age. Leading the cast in the titular role is Malaysian actress Jo Kukathas, a stage veteran who's acted in local productions such as W!LD RICE's Cooling-Off Day and Checkpoint Theatre's Occupation. Director Jo Unsworth specifically chose two female leads (Julie Wee, a local actress, plays political figure Cassius) to reflect modern times and the increasing role of women in today's political setting.
After catching Shakespeare in the Park's Julius Caesar, we check in with Kukathas over email to suss out the importance of the role and the significance of Mahathir's recent win.
You were born in Kuala Lumpur, grew up in Canberra and Hong Kong, and went to school in India and the UK. Where is home to you now?
Malaysia is definitely home. A small suburb outside Kuala Lumpur in particular where I live with two cats. Though my family is scattered — Seattle, London and Eschevenez in France.
Among the many hats that you wear — actor, director, writer — which specific aspects of your craft and personality does each hat take out of you?
I like all my hats. I used to think I had to decide. But now I feel no — I don't like to wear the same clothes all the time. The same should be true of hats. But I wish I wore my writer hat more. I love being an actor working with great directors and actors. As a director I like the act of making that one big thing with designer and performers. Writing is that pleasurable, solitary pursuit. Theatre making, being with lots of people all the time, can be exhausting and I am quite a solitary person really. So I need those times alone.
What attracted you to this role?
It's made me think quite deeply about the idea of leadership. I also was happy that Guy Unsworth wanted to make the most powerful leader of the world a woman.
Do you identify with any aspects of your role? How do you remain empathetic to characters that might or might not share the same ethics as you do?
For many years I've played a character called YBeeee — a riff on the term YB or Yang Berhormat which is a honorific used to address politicians in Malaysia. YBeeee is a Deputy Minister. Over the years he has been the Deputy Minister of Misinformation, the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Panic, the Deputy Minister of Hot Air (Environmental Issues). I created him to mock those in power. But over the years I have become very fond of him. I've walked in his shoes (literally for 30 years) and I have come to understand him. It doesn't mean I don't judge him. I know him for what he is! But I empathise with him. As an actor I think you have to empathise with your characters. You can't comment on them. You can only BE them. I may not have their same ethics but I must understand what drives them.
This isn't your first time playing a male character. Where does the biggest challenge lie in when playing a gender that's not your own?
I think it is about getting the body and voice right. You discover the person when you discover the body and voice. How the person walks teaches you a great deal. I think that is true of any character male and female. Where a person's energy centre is located, where their voice is located. Of course the danger is often that you just want to play the swagger. Sometimes you start off my caricature, by imitation but once you let it settle deeply you can find the person behind the swagger. It is a great challenge but a satisfying one.
You grew up on Shakespeare. What does playing Julius Caesar mean to the youth you once were?
My father, the late K.Das, was a former diplomat turned journalist. He had a great gift for words. In the '80s he wrote a book called the Musa Dilemma, about the then Deputy Prime Minister Musa Hitam's decision to quit the cabinet of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. The cabinet was no longer run along democratic lines, he said. The book deals with the dilemma faced by Musa in making the decision to quit and examines power and the idea of the rule by law as opposed to the rule of law. My father had a passionate love of the law and he loved literature and Shakespeare in particular. Every chapter was prefaced by a quote from Julius Caesar.
I had just returned from University where I read Politics and Philosophy. I proofread the book for my father —sitting on the floor pouring over galley proof after galley proof and correcting with a red pen. There were no sophisticated home computers yet. Today in Malaysia, Pakatan Harapan led by Dr. Mahathir has just won the election running on a campaign of the importance of the rule of law. He constantly emphasised that before this Malaysia had never been governed by the rule of law. But that this is now what has to change. It is remarkable. And I am hopeful. I only wish my father was here to witness this.
Why do you think Singapore needs to see a female Julius Caesar?
There are remarkably few women in political power in Singapore. I think the normalisation of female power is important for us to be able to more readily imagine and accept women in power.
What do you think both men and women can learn from this production?
The cyclical nature of power. The importance of democracy but the dangers of seizing power undemocratically. The fact that you cannot give too much power to one person. The cult of personality is dangerous. It goes to the head of that person. In this case, Caesar. Cassius is a revolutionary and says a lot that I think is very important about the danger of turning mere mortals into gods. Yes, they are loved but they are also hated. They don't realise how much because they surround themselves with yes men. When Brutus stabs Caesar she is completely shocked. "Et tu, Brute?" she cries. Because she realizes that if Brutus wanted to kill her she must have done something wrong — because he was Caesar's angel. So she says if you too wanted to kill me then I must have done something wrong, I should die: "Then fall, Caesar."
Lastly, do you remember the last time you gave into greed and desire?
Last night when I ate a Magnum followed by a Murtabak.
Shakespeare in the Park's Julius Caesar runs till 27 May at Fort Canning Park.
Book your tickets here.