Jackie Clune plays the title role in Phyllida Lloyd’s latest production of Julius Caesar, originally performed at the Donmar in late 2016 and now being released in cinemas. Building on a distinguished stage career, Clune was enticed by Phyllida’s groundbreaking all-female Shakespeare trilogy that also includes Henry IV and The Tempest. While not the first production of Lloyd’s Julius Caesar (the original production having been staged in 2012) or Henry IV (2014), the play’s new home in the Donmar’s pop-up theatre by Kings Cross gave new focus to the material in its effort to bring the marginalised stories of female prisoners (the whole trilogy is staged as if being performed within a women’s prison) into mainstream theatre. This production has now moved on to the big screen in an effort to make it more accessible to a wider audience who by reason of location or financial situation, could not attend its original performances in the theatre. We here at culturised had the chance to talk to Jackie just prior to the film’s premier at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival where we discussesd the gender dynamics of the production, its adaptation to the big screen, the prescient politics of the source material, and the prospects for women in the performing arts.
My first question is about power relationships within a female prison. Do what extent do you feel the production explored those power relationships and what did it bring to fruition in the context of Julius Caesar?
We had a couple of women in the company who were ex-offenders, who had been in prison, and were able to educate us about how that works and I know we’ve all got out clichéd version of “Queen Bee” and “Prisoner, Cell Block H” and all that. To some extent, those hierarchies exist and we felt we were able to use that in Julius Caesar. I wasn’t in the original production in 2012 but that’s what they explored then. In our production, Frankie Barber (Frances Barber) who played Julius Caesar last time, decided that the person playing Julius Caesar actually turned out to be a screw in the prison but we didn’t do that for us, because of course we had the trilogy. So my take on it was the prisoner playing Julius Caesar had a kind of cult following in the prison that is toppled by a sort of rival gang. So there’s that kind of layer on that were playing, that my character, my prison character, she’s called Den, is quite damaged when she comes into prison: addiction issues, power issues etc. And that’s what I kind of tried to use in Caesar. So like the cult of Den that we talked about.
Do you feel that this production was doing anything “different”? Obviously with the all-female cast that had already, you know, been done back in 2012 but revisiting that, did you feel any specific focal points arise from the production?
I think really, for us, it was a lot to do with power. We focused on that and when you strip away all the doublet and hose and the fake Roman centurion costumes and the declaiming and you just get a bunch of women in grey tracksuits, the focus is going to be on the language. And I think that’s what we do brilliantly well. I was educated at a comprehensive school, I had a brilliant English teacher, not much else. And I remember doing Julius Caesar and just not really understanding it at school and, I think, watching what we do now, everything is so clear. The storytelling is so clear, the language is so clear and that’s one thing that Phyllida is really adamant about, that we all have to absolutely understand what we’re saying and why we’re saying. And we have to make sure the audience understands that as well.
How was assuming the role from Frances? Was it something particularly difficult or was it easier because you were doing something so completely different from that 2012 production?
I think it was something completely different because being in the round, obviously, changes the way you perform, and actually I didn’t see the production because I was on tour with 9 to 5: The Musical at the time. Bit different. And I just went from the idea that okay, let’s assume that there’s a good reason why he was very popular and I read a couple of books about him and I came up with the idea that he was very charismatic and kind of a flatterer and good at getting people on his side, and look at Donald Trump and people like that who are obviously quite heinous.
Well it’s interesting that you bring that up due to the recent outcry against that Julius Caesar production in Central Park, any comments on that?
Yea, well I mean, they’re such babies. They’re such babies, politically. Why can’t they take it? It’s a little production. And all these corporate sponsors…
And it’s not like nothing like this has been done before
I know, well people drew comparisons between Trump and our production. Obviously it was around the time we were doing this when he was elected. In fact, I think we did Julius Caesar because we were doing the three plays in revel, the night of the election. And to walk on stage that night as Julius Caesar with my blonde quaff and just think “Jesus”. It was extraordinary, weird times we live in and how prescient this play is. You know, it could be the Tory party, couldn’t it? Julius Caesar as Theresa May and Boris Johnson as Brutus, or I don’t know?
Yea Cassius. Or maybe Michael Gove as Brutus. It’s incredible really, how prescient it is.
Was there any intensive workshopping for the production? Because I remember at the end it notes the partnership with the York Prisoners’ Project.
Yes, they did originally workshop the play with the project. I was part of the Henry IV and The Tempest prison workshops. But I think it was a question of almost restaging it as it was done the first time so in the case of Caesar. But in the case of the other two films, which we hope will come out in time, yeah very much so.
Do you feel the production if making any bold statements around gender dynamics? Changing it to all-female cast and having female actresses playing male characters, does that blur the boundaries and bringing out the theme of the performativity of gender.
Yeah, I think what’s really interesting to watch is, initially, in rehearsals, you feel very conscious of yourself as a female and then through fight-y, physical workshops we sort of unpicked what that meant and also how to “act” like a man. But then, very quickly, once you in the character, you almost feel weirdly genderless. It feels like you’re playing a variety of traits rather than gender traits, if you know what I mean.
Yeah, I can really see that, especially in the interactions between Brutus and Porcia in this production.
I think you get a critique, don’t you? Because it’s two woman talking to each other about women although one of them is playing a male. It’s the same thing in Henry IV, Lady Percy and Hotspur have this similar dialogue about, you know, being trusted as a weak woman and being partied to their husbands’ dark, secret, their inner world. And just being the little woman on the side and I think when the actresses that have played those female parts are delivering those lines, you hear them in a really different way because it’s obvious that, you know, they are being ironic or they are using them against their husband and suddenly it looks like a very different world. You know, in terms of gender. I really like that, the fact that we’re all women doing it, you get a different spin on it. And those dialogues sound ridiculous in that space because, you know, they are and who know what Shakespeare “intended” but that’s how it comes across when we do it.
My final question is about the theatre being a place of protest and resistance. You’ve already mentioned the Donald Trump parallels as well as the prescience of the text, so how do you feel about the theatre being used as a tool of prescient education, or as a warning?
Well I think one of the great things about this project in the theatre and, hopefully, in the cinema now, is the importance placed on a young audience. Getting young audiences in, breaking down those barriers between, you know, what they perceive to be culture that’s not for them and affordability, all of those issues. And I think if we can do that, which we did successfully do at the King’s Cross then we are hopefully building a future audience for the arts that is more kind of representative and anarchic and revolutionary and all those things that I love. A culture that sort of truly examines where we are rather than presents a kind of sanitised version of the world for people who live in a very cosy world.
A kind of middle-classness that’s associated with the theatre?
Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s fine, it’s entertainment but it’s not really what I want to do. It’s not really what engages me. And you know, several of us have turned down quite lucrative jobs to do this because you sort of think, you get to a certain age now and most of the parts I’m offered are a bit shit. And you just think “ugh, I’m sick of being the mum”, I want to play a murderer, I want to play a bastard, I wanna be someone who has great speeches, not two lines in the domestic setting. I would like to do big stories. Just things that are, you know, about universal things, about power and loyalty and betrayal and, you know, kind of non-gender-specific really. And I think we still, we’re still bashing against that sort of glass ceiling in what women are allowed to play. And also age is a big thing for me, as I get older I realise how oppressed older women are. When you get past 30-35, you just start getting scripts that say “Mum”, as if that’s a character anyway. How many different mums are there in the world? That’s driving me crazy at the moment, that’s my big tub-thumping thing. And I’d love to see that change.
Julius Caesar will be in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from 12th July until the 17th August 2017. For more information, see here.