The following article is taken from the May 2010 issue of the Main Street Journal. Click “Subscribe Online” above to start your subscription.
Changing Pronouns: Dressing up Caesar
By: Jonathan Devin
Recent years have seen women in America making huge strides in politics. Nancy Pelosi became the first female speaker of the house, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin ran serious campaigns for president and vice president respectively, and Sonia Sotomayor added a new female voice to the Supreme Court.
Now it seems a woman can even be Caesar.
A funny thing happened on the way to the forum: the Tennessee Shakespeare Company, Germantown’s professional company dedicated to the great bard himself, cast its latest production of “Julius Caesar” with seven women, something artistic director Dan McCleary said was a long time coming.
Indeed, many of Shakespeare’s best known plays are male-dominated and McCleary wanted to give women a chance to stage some of the giants of their repertoire. Also, he told me he wanted to see what happened when politics, avarice, and murder were treated with female hands and sensibility.
The plot is well-known: Julius Caesar returns to Rome victorious from battle and is offered a crown, which he (she) refuses. Cassius, a senator, convinces Caesar’s best friend Brutus that Caesar’s popularity will overthrow the Republic. Assassination, they decide, is the only solution.
What McCleary didn’t tell me was that he went much further than simply casting women in male roles. He actually changed pronouns throughout the script, turning hundreds of hes, hims, and men of Romes into shes, hers, and women of Rome. This Caesar, this Brutus, this conniving Cassius and their fellows were all portrayed as women as well as acted by women.
If you are scratching your head right now, so was I, all through Act I.
The actors wore tunic-like outfits in light airy material which had aspects of both pants and skirts. In true Shakespearian tradition, actors lingered around the stage area even when not in a scene and changed characters by adding a mantel, cape, or hat to their costumes.
Solo cello played by Memphis Symphony principal Irene Zombor effectively set the mood of each scene with intensity and provided highly-stylized fight scenes with energy and resonance.
And of course, the setting—Germantown’s city council chamber—was more than apt. Cast members wove in and out of the audience and among the council seats, which were also filled with audience members. Its multilevel, semi-round, high-ceiling space made for a better forum than any set the company could have built.
Eventually the strength of the performance won out over the gender-bending confusion and I was able to sit back and take it for what it was so that by the time the two actual female characters, Portia and Calpurnia, made their entrances I didn’t bother myself with the altered politics of female Caesar and female Brutus and their wives. The acting was so good I didn’t care.
There were some real treats in the performance, none so great as listening to the famed “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” speech with a realistic treatment. Most of us had to memorize and recite the speech solemnly in front of our tenth grade English classes, but in this production Antonius orates while running from an angry crowd who saw her as a traitor.
The murder of Caesar involved the vengeful senators drawing blood red ribbons from Caesar’s mantel to represent sword wounds—a device that Shakespeare would have used himself.
And the show made me think about what happens when women enter the political arena and suddenly their children, their pant suits, their struggles with breast cancer, their ability to cry in front of a camera or stand by a faithless husband all become the topics of speculation against their leadership.
Do women have to become somewhat masculinized to be successful leaders? Does the public perceive weakness in nurturing? Is the confidence of the public established in a person’s actions or in the length of the cape he or she wears?
The unusual casting of this production was no gimmick. McCleary wants his audiences thinking on the way out the door.